Benjamin Rush: An Overlooked American Founding Father's Contribution to Mental Health Advocacy

Drew Ramsey, MD


March 15, 2019

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

I'm Dr Drew Ramsey, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City.

Do you remember this vintage bag from the American Psychiatric Association? When I heard we were getting a new logo, I thought, Great, we're getting rid of this old white guy, whoever he is. But being a psychiatrist, you learn to be circumspect. I realized that I didn't know enough about this individual. And while I love the new logo, I've also really learned to love this man, Benjamin Rush.

Americans don't know a lot about Benjamin Rush. Last year, a great book was written on his life by Stephen Fried.[1] In full disclosure, Stephen and I are on faculty together at Columbia and I know and work with him. That being said, I think you should be very interested in this book, as anyone interested in mental health should know about Benjamin Rush. He is a founding father that we've lost, and one that matters to mental health.

Known as the American Hippocrates, Rush was one of the first individuals and physicians to proclaim that mental illness is under the purview of medicine, that madness is a medical condition. He advocated that patients in asylums receive amenities like heat and food during a time when it was thought that individuals with "madness" were impervious to heat and cold. He was one of the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was one of our first mental health advocates.

Benjamin Rush's son was also a physician. He participated in a duel in which he shot and killed one of his friends, which resulted in his experiencing a psychotic break that included a suicide attempt and struggles with alcoholism. Benjamin Rush ended up caring for his son for most of his life.

This is a great book and it's a way to find inspiration. I know I have. It's helped me to remember that America really was founded on a principle of taking care of and prioritizing mental illness. It's a parity that is built right into who our founding fathers are.

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