Benjamin Rush, Founding Father and Father of Psychiatry

This blog post was originally published on July 2, 2012.

Of the 56 founding fathers who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence, there were four physicians: Josiah Bartlett and Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire, Lyman Hall of Georgia, and Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania.


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c. 1876, Library of Congress

Josiah Bartlett went on to inspire the main character of The West Wing. But perhaps more impressively, Benjamin Rush became the father of American psychiatry. (He also somehow had time to serve as treasurer of the U.S. Mint.)

In 1812, a year before his death, Rush published the first edition of Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind, which became the standard textbook in the field for nearly half a century. Both an 1812 and 1835 edition of the book can be read online.

Here is an excerpt from chapter 12, “Of Derangement in the Memory.” While some of Rush’s prescriptions of how to improve memory are laughable or offensive by today’s standards, others have aged surprisingly well.

Rush breaks down treatments for memory problems into two types, “corporeal” and “mental.”

His corporeal recommendations include:

1. Abstracting all its exciting causes. Sir John Pringle’s memory was restored in a great degree by leaving off the use of snuff.

2. Depleting remedies, if plethora attend, and the pulse be tense or oppressed. These should be bleeding, purges, and low diet. After the reduction of the system the remedies should be,

3. Blisters. Wepfef speaks in high terms of their efficacy, when applied to the elbows and calves of the legs, in this disease.

. . .

6. Certain aromatic medicines. Etmuller says, when a young man, he greatly improved his memory by swallowing three or four cubebs [spicy berries] every day. The cardamon seeds are said to have the same effect. Lavender and rosemary, or cloves, may be substituted for both of them.

7. The cold bath and cold weather. Milton’s memory was always improved by the latter.

8. Exercise. Mr. Pope commends a trotting horse above all things, in order to excite dormant ideas. It is from the motion excited in the brain, by means of a fever, that persons, in that disease, often recollect events and speak languages which appeared to have perished in their memories.

And some of the mental treatments:

1. Frequently repeating what we wish to remember. . . . The door of the mind in such people requires two knocks before it can be opened, one by the person who asks, the other by the person who answers the questions; or, to speak more simply, the mind requires a double impression from words before it is able to convert them into thoughts.

2. Calling in the aid of two or more of the senses, to assist in the retention of knowledge. We seldom forget what we have handled, or tasted, as well as seen or heard. . . .

3. The memory is restored and strengthened by means of association. The principal circumstances which influence this operation of the mind are, time, place, pleasure, pain, sounds, words, letters, habit, and interest.

. . .

5. The memory is improved by using it. Its low state among savages is occasioned by the small number of objects upon which they exercise it.

. . .

9. Singing aids the memory in acquiring a knowledge of words, and of the ideas connected with them. A song is always learned sooner than the same number of words not to set music.

10. Reading, or repeating what we wish to commit to memory, the last thing we do before we go to bed.

In honor of Independence Day and Benjamin Rush, I recommend taking a minute to peruse his influential tome. And don’t miss his final chapters: “Of the morbid State of the Sexual Appetite” and “Of the derangement in the Moral Faculties.”

– Johanna Goldberg

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