Rush to judgment
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.