The most prominent defender of the public during America’s first viral panic—the 1793 yellow fever outbreak—was a physician and philanthropist named Benjamin Rush.
Rush completed his medical training in Europe and then returned to his native Philadelphia. He immediately began to apply his knowledge to improving and softening life for his fellow Americans, particularly ministering to the poor who were unable to get care elsewhere. He also became the first professor of chemistry in America.
Rush had “a natural sympathy with distress of every kind,” and knew firsthand how poor health could break hearts. Three of his siblings died as youths, and he and his wife themselves lost four children in infancy, and others to adult afflictions. Diseases like yellow fever, diphtheria, typhus, and tuberculosis descended with grim regularity in his day, sometimes almost depopulating entire villages and neighborhoods.
During the Revolution, Rush was a prominent patriot, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a field surgeon, and Surgeon General to the Continental Army. He even used his chemistry knowledge to create homemade explosives for the patriot forces after Great Britain cut off gunpowder imports.
In 1786, Rush provided money and expertise, and raised additional resources from others, to open the Philadelphia Dispensary—the first free walk-in health clinic in the United States. House calls for indigents too sick to leave home were also provided. Rush was famous for his inquisitive and kindly bedside manner, which he offered to citizens modest and mighty without distinction. An on-site apothecary compounded medicines of all sorts, which were given away at no charge along with the advice of the attending physicians. Rush did all of his work at the Dispensary for free, even though the thousands of patients he ministered to there required him to reduce his private practice by a fourth. (The charity treated 8,000 patients in just its first five years.) With Rush’s encouragement, the model of the Philadelphia Dispensary subsequently spread to other cities, and this kind of clinic became for generations our primary means of providing health care to the urban poor.
Physicians in that era, including Rush, had few effective tools, and sometimes harmed as much as they helped, via their bleedings and dosings and primitive understandings of biological processes. But Rush was better than most—a pioneer at introducing scientific method into health care, he improved our knowledge of many diseases, and showed strong instincts for cause and effect. He was particularly helpful in advancing preventative medicine and public-health practices. “Obviating diseases is the business of physic as well as curing them,” he wrote. In his day, the poor seldom washed, and the wealthier generally did so only in warmer weather. Street gutters served as open sewers, and lice, flies, and mosquitoes were everywhere. He knew these problems well from his many house calls on sick patients in Philadelphia’s most wretched neighborhoods.
Philadelphia’s horrific yellow-fever epidemics near the close of the eighteenth century killed up to 10 percent of the population in each outbreak. Rush was one of the few physicians to stay in the city during these panics, attending to more than 100 patients a day (even while suffering from yellow fever himself during the 1793 outbreak). Despite his heroic efforts to stanch suffering, Rush was attacked viciously for his ineffectiveness at saving lives, leading eventually to a boycott that cost him nearly all of the paying customers of his medical practice and estranged him from his home city.
So, “animated by a hope in God’s mercy,” as he put it, he leaned heavily on his religious faith throughout his later adult life. He advocated for the mentally ill, campaigned against slavery, battled alcoholism, improved prisons, and founded schools. It was his spiritual vision more than anything else that drove Benjamin Rush’s powerful benevolence. That compounded with his scientific and intellectual skills and his personal energy allowed him to become one of the great humanitarian helpers in American history.
To learn more about Benjamin Rush and his other philanthropic contributions, read his Hall of Fame entry in The Almanac of American Philanthropy.