Dr. Benjamin Rush is not yet the subject of a Ken Burns documentary, but he surely ought to be. The Philadelphia physician was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, an anonymous polemicist who helped inspire the Boston Tea Party and the editor of Thomas Paine’s wildly influential “Common Sense.” And, as detailed in a new biography by Stephen Fried, he both treated and became a close friend to several U.S. presidents. He personally brought Thomas Jefferson and John Adams back together after their friendship seemed permanently ended.
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Fried discussed “Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father.” Published last year, the book is just out in paperback.
As Fried acknowledges, Rush was very much a man of his time. Some of the treatments he used on patients, such as bloodletting, would be unthinkable today. Yet in many ways, he was a visionary. Fried says he was the Founding Father who was most adamantly opposed to slavery. He also made the case that mental illness was a disease — and one that deserved compassionate treatment. He wrote a book about “diseases of the mind” that is still widely cited today.
“He had very forward-looking ideas,” Fried said.
Rush was also the medical adviser to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Among the provisions he instructed them to take: purging pills, believed to relieve their bodies of toxins. But while these pills, which contained mercury, would never be used as medical treatment today, Fried said they have helped historians greatly.
“One of the jokes about the Lewis and Clark expedition is that the reason we know where they went [is] because we know where they went,” Fried explained. “Rush gave them pills that caused diarrhea, and those pills had mercury in them. And because they had mercury in them, we can follow them. That’s part of the way that the re-creation of Lewis and Clark’s path can be done.”
What: Rediscovering Benjamin Rush
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019
Where: Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112)
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“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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