Rush to judg­ment

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - — P.L.

Rush: Rev­o­lu­tion, Mad­ness, and the Vi­sion­ary Doc­tor Who Be­came a Found­ing Fa­ther by Stephen Fried

In Rush: Rev­o­lu­tion, Mad­ness, and the Vi­sion­ary Doc­tor Who Be­came a Found­ing Fa­ther, au­thor Stephen Fried poses the idea that Ben­jamin Rush, an Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion-era physi­cian, should be revered as one of Amer­ica’s founders. But Rush’s close­ness with em­i­nent per­sons worked against his stand­ing in his­tory. “[John] Adams and [Thomas] Jef­fer­son es­pe­cially had shared years of con­fi­dences about their feel­ings, their pol­i­tics, their re­li­gion — even their bath­room habits — with Dr. Rush ... the founder who knew too much.” Jef­fer­son wanted his sen­si­tive cor­re­spon­dence re­turned shortly af­ter Rush’s death, and Adams wor­ried that pub­lish­ing Rush’s letters might cause a “fac­tious fury.”

Fried suc­ceeds in el­e­vat­ing aware­ness of the physi­cian and founder; whether he se­cures him a place of em­i­nence sim­i­lar to the more prom­i­nent founders is ques­tion­able. Rush did ac­com­plish for­mi­da­ble things: He was one of 56 sign­ers of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence; pro­vided med­i­cal care dur­ing the yel­low fever epi­demics of the late 1700s in Philadel­phia; was an early ad­vo­cate of com­pas­sion­ate care for the men­tally ill; pro­moted pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing for women; pre­pared the char­ter for Dick­in­son Col­lege; op­posed prej­u­dice based on race, re­li­gion, or gen­der; and was an early ad­vo­cate for abol­ish­ing slav­ery. On the other hand, he re­lent­lessly pro­moted the use of blood­let­ting and purga­tives; crit­i­cized Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s lead­er­ship (es­pe­cially at Val­ley Forge) from the com­fort of his fa­ther-in-law’s Prince­ton man­sion; and had a propen­sity to­ward per­sonal feuds.

The book’s main strength is that Fried is able to bring a by­gone era into fo­cus by com­bin­ing jour­nal­is­tic de­tail and a rel­a­tively light touch. In ad­di­tion to ex­am­in­ing the physi­cian’s life, the au­thor paints a pic­ture of early Amer­ica, medicine, and psy­chol­ogy in a way that re­calls his pre­vi­ous book, Ap­petite for Amer­ica: Fred Har­vey and the Busi­ness of Civ­i­liz­ing the Wild West — One Meal at a Time (2010), which of­fered many en­light­en­ing de­tails about the Har­vey House era. The au­thor uses Rush’s letters, pro­fes­sional papers, and long out-of-print works of schol­ar­ship to present a sweep­ing look at a com­pli­cated life.

Fried presents Rush at Col­lected Works Book­store, 202 Gal­is­teo St., 6:30 p.m. Fri­day, Nov. 2, 2018.

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