Colonial Hall -- Biographies of America's Founding Fathers

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Page 5

Benjamin Rush


   Notwithstanding the great labors of Dr. Rush as a lecturer and practitioner, he was a voluminous writer. His printed works consisted of seven volumes, six of which treat of medical subjects. One is a collection of essays, literary, moral, and philosophical. It is a matter of wonder how a physician, who had so many patients to attend -- a professor, who had so many pupils to instruct -- could find leisure to write so much, and at the same time so well. Our wonder will cease, when it is known that he suffered no fragments of time to be wasted, and that be improved every opportunity of acquiring knowledge, and used all practicable means for retaining and digesting what he had acquired. In his early youth he had the best instructors, and in every period of his life, great opportunities for mental improvement. He was gifted from heaven with a lively imagination, a retentive memory, a discriminating judgment, and be made the most of all these advantages. From boyhood till his last sickness, he was a constant and an indefatigable student. He read much, but thought more. His mind was constantly engrossed with at least one literary inquiry, to which, for the time, he devoted his undivided attention. To make himself master of that subject, he read, he meditated, he conversed. It was less his custom to read a book through, than to read as much of all the authors within his reach as bore on the subject of his present inquiry. His active mind brooded over the materials thus collected, compared his ideas, and traced their relations to each other, and from the whole drew his own conclusions. In these, and similar mental exercises, be was habitually and almost constantly employed, and daily aggregated and multiplied his intellectual stores. In this manner his sound judgment was I to form those new combinations, which constitute principles in science. He formed acquaintances with his literary fellow-citizens, and all well informed strangers, who visited Philadelphia; and drew from them every atom of information he could obtain, by conversing on the subjects with which they were best acquainted. He extracted so largely from the magazine of knowledge deposited in the expanded mind of Dr. Franklin, that he once mentioned to a friend, his intention to write a book with the title of Frankliniana, in which he proposed to collect the fragments of wisdom, which he had treasured in his memory as they fell in conversation from the lips of this great original genius. To Dr. Rush, every place was a school, every one with whom he conversed was a tutor. He was never without a book, for, when he had no other, the book of nature was before him, and engaged his attention. In his lectures to his pupils, he advised them, 'to lay every person they met with, whether in a packet boat, a stage wagon, or a public road, under contribution for facts on physical subjects.' What the professor recommended to them, he practiced himself. His eyes and ears were open to see, hear, and profit by every occurrence. The facts he received from persons of all capacities he improved to some valuable purpose. He illustrates one of his medical theories by a fact communicated by a butcher; another from an observation made by a madman, in the Pennsylvania Hospital. In his scientific work on the diseases of the mind, he refers frequently to poets, and particularly to Shakespeare, to the history of madness, and apologizes for it in the following words. 'They (poets) view the human mind in all its operations, whether natural or morbid, with a microscopic eye, and hence many things arrest their attention, which escape the notice of physicians.' It may be useful to students to be informed, that Dr. Rush constantly kept by him a note book, consisting of two parts, in one of which he entered facts as they occurred; in the other, ideas and observations, as they arose in his own mind, or were suggested by others in conversation. His mind was under such complete discipline, that he could read or write with perfect composure, in the midst of the noise of his children, the conversation of his family, and the common interrogatories of his visiting patients. A very moderate proportion of his time was devoted to sleep, and much less to the pleasures of the table. In the latter case, sittings were never prolonged, but in conversation on useful subjects, and for purposes totally distinct from the gratifications of appetite. In the course of nearly seventy years spent in this manner, he acquired a sum of useful practical knowledge that has rarely been attained by one man, in any age or country."
   Medical inquiries were the primary objects of Dr. Rush's attention; yet he by no means neglected other branches of knowledge. In the earlier part of his life, he paid great attention to politics. The subjects of a political character, which chiefly engrossed his mind, were the independence of his country, the establishment of wise constitutions for the states generally, and for his own state particularly, and the diffusion of knowledge among the American people. On these subjects he usefully employed his pen in numerous essays, which were published under a variety of names.

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Last modified January 1, 2004