On this day in 1745, patriot, physician and social reformer Benjamin Rush is born in Byberry Township, Pennsylvania. The two great “Benjamins” of the revolutionary generation, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, shared status as Renaissance men and Philadelphians. Despite Franklin’s greater fame, Dr. Rush was actually the better-educated, more widely traveled and more broadly experienced of the two.
Benjamin Franklin’s mystique comes from his status as a self-made man without a formal education. By contrast, Benjamin Rush was educated at the best universities on both sides of the Atlantic. After his father died when he was just six years old, his mother put him in the care of his uncle, Reverend Samuel Finley, who later became president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. Rush received his Bachelor of Arts from the College in 1760 with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Instead, he began studying medicine in Philadelphia before traveling to Scotland, the center of 18th century medical study, and earning his M.D. from the University of Edinburgh. He traveled and studied in Britain and in continental Europe, where he met Benjamin Franklin, before returning to Philadelphia and opening a private medical practice in 1769.
Rush was an early supporter of the Patriot cause and an eager signer of the Declaration of Independence. He served as a surgeon during the war and expressed outrage at what he considered the negligent treatment of the Continental Army. General George Washington took Rush’s critique as a personal affront and Rush resigned his post in protest.
Rush continued to be active in the building of the new nation. In 1787 he spoke fervently and often in support of the Constitution during the ratifying convention in Philadelphia. He was also a vocal proponent of the emancipation of slaves, considerate care for the mentally ill and public education. Rush chartered the first college in the new United States in 1783–Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Although Rush was the primary founder, he asked Pennsylvania’s governor, John Dickinson, to lend his name and prestige to the institution. The college’s motto, however, was chosen by Rush: Tuta libertas: “A bulwark of liberty.”