Published: 10-10-2011, 15:32

Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) - American Education

American physician, statesman, signer of the Declaration of Independence and champion of universal public education. A founder of Dickinson College in 1773, Rush’s long-term influence on American education was in his articulation and perpetuation of a liberal educational ideology that he would never live to see implemented.

Born in Philadelphia and educated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), he earned his M.D. after six years as an apprentice to a Philadelphia physician and two years of study at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. He returned to Philadelphia in 1768, became the first chemistry professor ever at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), and in 1770 published the first American chemistry text, based on his lectures. He also entered private practice and, because of his location, began treating and establishing friendships with the most important colonial leaders, who were gathering in Philadelphia to declare independence from England. He welcomed and entertained John Adams, GEORGE WASHINGTON and THOMAS PAINE and inoculated Patrick Henry against smallpox. Through such associations, he won election to the Second Continental Congress in time to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Named to the medical department of the Continental Army, he fought constantly with superiors over unhealthy conditions in military hospitals and finally resigned his commission in 1778. After the Revolution, he spent the next decade on “a one-man crusade to remake America,” campaigning for free schools, a national university, prison reform, free postage for newspapers, churches for blacks, temperance, emancipation, education of women and abolition of capital punishment.

Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Rush (Library of Congress)

He was a staunch proponent, along with Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison, of the REPUBLICAN (STYLE OF) EDUCATION and espoused establishment of a national system of universal education. His—and their—efforts to include educational rights in the Constitution were defeated by the fierce opposition of northern mill owners who depended on children for cheap labor and southern plantation owners who depended on slavery for free labor. Like Jefferson, he turned his attention to his native state, Pennsylvania, where he attempted to establish a three-level system of schooling, with free district, or township, schools to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, English and German (for the Pennsylvania “Dutch,” Deutsch). The state would have four regional colleges to teach higher mathematics and the sciences, and a university in Philadelphia would teach law, medicine, divinity, politics, economics and natural philosophy. “The university will in time furnish masters for the free schools, while the free schools, in their turns, will supply the colleges and university with scholars, students and pupils,” said Rush. “The same systems of grammar, oratory and philosophy, will be taught in every part of the state. . . . Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of people more homogeneous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”

Rush saw colleges as “true nurseries of power and influence” and favored establishment of a national university that graduates of state universities would be required to attend to receive training for public service. Rush also believed that women should be educated as wives and mothers in schools that would teach reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic and bookkeeping, geography, history, astronomy, chemistry, natural philosophy, vocal music, dancing and the Christian religion. He called for establishment of post offices and urged free distribution of newspapers as “vehicles of knowledge and intelligence” and “sentinels of the liberties of our countries.” He protested corporal punishment, denounced slavery and espoused a belief in the perfectibility of human beings through education. In 1786, he established the nation’s first free dispensary.

In 1791, he rejoined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and helped organize its medical school, the first in the United States. A leader in the battle against the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793, he devoted the rest of his life to teaching and research. Often called the “father of American psychiatry,” he wrote the first discourse on mental illness published in the United States, Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Disease of the Mind (1812).