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No. 739:
Benjamin Rush

Today, a psychiatrist signs the Declaration of Independence. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Benjamin Rush was a 30-year-old doctor when he helped declare us free of England. Freedom and human well-being were causes that shaped his life. He believed in educating women. He fought slavery and the death penalty. He worked for prison reform. He tried to form a Cabinet Department of Peace to balance the War Department.

As a doctor, Rush may've overused blood-letting and purging. Still, he was a shrewd observer. His untiring courage in caring for the sick almost led to his own death by yellow fever. He finally did die of typhus.

In 1812 he published a book on diseases of the mind. For that, we call Rush the Father of American Psychiatry. But he'd started framing his ideas about the mind long before.

In 1786 he gave an oration before the American Philosophical Society. He dedicated it to the Society's president, Ben Franklin. It was all about the physical causes of our moral state -- the sort of thing that gives modern readers fits.

Rush began by listing possible physical influences on our sense of morality. He wondered about effects of body shape, heredity, disease, climate, diet, and more.

He guessed what influences might harm morality -- like idleness and alcohol. He gave a monastic list of things that might sharpen our moral sense: solitude, music, work, and cleanliness. Then he added pain. But then, maybe suffering does take place on the same mental battleground where good wars with evil.

As we read, we begin to see Rush's scientific open-mindedness. What he had was a fine eye for possibilities. He asked more questions than he answered. He understood that we grow wise in framing our ignorance, not in asserting knowledge.

When Rush taught medicine, he talked about the senses. How do we taste with the tongue, smell with the nose? How does the heart see God? He stirred an eerie brew of cool rational observation, strict fundamentalist conviction, and the most liberal causes of human freedom. None of that fits today's stereotypes.

While Rush theorized about the moral faculty, he also put his own life on the line among the sick. If he was assertive, he was equally open-minded. He was, I suppose, America in embryo.

In the end, Rush acted out a belief in individuality. He did that so well by keeping questions ahead of answers -- by honoring your view while he laid claim to his own.

And in that he was a fitting signer of the Declaration of Independence. He understood what freedom is made of.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Rush, B., Two Essays on the Mind (intro. by E.T. Carlson). New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1972.

See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Rush. These two sources give conflicting birth dates for Rush -- 1746 and 1745. The reason, as explained in the reference below, is that we were operating under two slightly different calendars. He was actually born on Christmas Eve, 1745. But by today's calendar, he was born on Jan. 4, 1746.

Rush, B., Benjamin Rush's Lectures on the Mind (E.T. Carlson, J.L. Wollock, and P.S. Noel, eds.). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981.