Historical Markers
Benjamin Rush [Lewis and Clark] Historical Marker
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Benjamin Rush [Lewis and Clark]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Keswick & Rayland Roads, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
June 20, 2002

Behind the Marker

Portrait painting of Dr. Benjamin Rush.
Benjamin Rush, by Charles Willson Peale, 1783.
Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson had been colleagues for more than a quarter of a century. Having engaged in arguments over the contents of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they had rekindled an intellectual friendship during Jefferson's term as vice president in Philadelphia in the 1790s. On February 8, 1803, just as the Louisiana Purchase was about to become a reality, Jefferson marker wrote to Rush and asked for his help in preparing Meriwether Lewis for the medical challenges of the Expedition, which had yet to be announced to the public.

Rush was a good choice to give Lewis a crash course in health care. One of the best-trained physicians of his generation, Rush had studied medicine in Philadelphia, Edinburgh, London, and Paris before returning home to Philadelphia in 1769. As a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he quickly rose to civic as well as academic prominence, for Rush was someone who understood public service in the broadest sense of the word. A signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he believed that slavery should be abolished, education should be free, the poor should have health care, and that mental illness should be treated as a disease. Having studied the effects of alcohol and tobacco, he called for restrictions in their use. He also took personal risks to help people in need of medical attention - particularly during the American Revolution and during the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s.

Book front page
An Inquiry Into the Natural History of Medicine Among the Indians
Viewing the expedition as an opportunity to study Indian societies yet untouched by European influences, Rush encouraged Lewis to consider keeping track of a set of "abstract queries under the several heads of Physical History, medicine, morals, and religion of the Indians." He wanted to know about their cultures and their languages, as well as their diseases. Did they suffer from "palsy, apoplexy, Epilepsy [and] Madness?" Did they have sexually transmitted diseases? Did they have smallpox? If so, how did it spread and how did they treat it? Rush asked Lewis to take and record the pulses of Indians - morning, noon, and night - and to gather data from a cross-section of an entire tribe. Rush also wanted to know if the Indians promoted "artificial discharges of blood."

At the dawn of the 19th century, doctors had no knowledge of the microscopic organisms that we now know to be the causes of human illnesses and disease. In his medical studies Rush had learned that the human body was composed of four bodily fluids or "humors," as they were known: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Illness resulted when these four humors fell out of balance, and could be restored by purging the patient's bowels or removing his or her blood. Rush had had tremendous success with these treatments - or so he believed. As Lewis's medical mentor, Rush instructed him in their use.

On May 26, 1803, Lewis visited a Philadelphia druggist shop called Gillaspy and Strong and bought thirty different kinds of drugs and other medical supplies. On Rush's advice, Lewis purchased six lancets to bleed his fellow explorers. Rush also helped Lewis purchase fifteen pounds of pulverized Cinchona bark for treating malaria - a disease that would plague Lewis throughout the expedition - and 600 "Rush's pills," also known as "Thunderclappers," for treating constipation and other ailments. (One of the active ingredients in these pills was mercury, which was only much later identified as a deadly poison.)

Lewis's "mission is truly interesting," Rush wrote Jefferson a few weeks after Lewis's visit. "I shall wait with great solicitude for its issue." Concerned about the health of the expedition's members, Rush later wrote Lewis to suggest that they wear flannel - "especially in wet weather" - that they reserve alcohol for times when they were "very wet or much fatigued" and wash their feet with it when chilled, and that they eat sparingly during "difficult and laborious enterprises or marches."

Medical Equipment with syringe, small knives, and needles in a leather case.
Medical Equipment with syringe, small knives, and needles in a leather case
During their two-year trek, the men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition "suffered everything which hunger, cold and fatigue could impose," wrote Clark. On the trail, they used some of Rush's medicines and advice, as well as folk remedies that Lewis had learned from his mother, Lucy Marks, a well-known expert in herbal medicine who resided near Charlottesville, Virginia. Only one man died on the Expedition - Charles Floyd - from what was probably a ruptured appendix. No medical treatments available at the time could have saved him.

Lewis brought back a rich trove of information about the American Indian tribes he encountered that delighted and fascinated the elderly doctor. Benjamin Rush, however, did not live to read the official publication of the Expedition's findings. He died in 1813, a year before publication of markerNicholas Biddle's History of the Expedition.

When Jefferson learned of Rush's passing, he wrote John Adams: "Another of our friends of seventy-six is gone, my dear Sir, another of the co-signers of the Independence of our country. And a better man than Rush could not have left us, more benevolent, more learned, of finer genius, or more honest." Rush was buried in the Christ Church burial ground at Fifth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia.
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