A solid—and somewhat stolid—life of an often-overlooked Founding Father.
Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), political biographer Brodsky (The Great Mayor, 2003, etc.) shows, was one of those impossibly accomplished gentlemen of the Georgian era. He was a noted doctor and scientist, and though his longstanding belief in the value of bleeding a victim to remove pestilential humors earned him the nickname “Dr. Vampire,” he was responsible for training some 2,500 medical students in Philadelphia and elsewhere. (“It is said,” writes Brodsky, “that every outstanding American physician down to the Civil War was either a pupil of Rush or of a Rush pupil.”) He was a man of learning and letters, capable of holding his own in arguments against the likes of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the blustering Tory, whom he liked well enough, “after making some deductions from his character on account of his ecclesiastical and political bigotry.” He was a capable politician and an early convert to the cause of the American Revolution, radicalized by repressive British colonial legislation in the 1760s. He read everything and knew everyone, as did his friends Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, with whom he was in every way an intellectual equal. All good reason to give attention and honor to Rush, who was one of the best of a remarkable generation. Brodsky does just that, although there are some notable shortcomings in his treatment. For one thing, he does not give enough attention to the causes of Rush’s radical awakening and is content to write, weakly, “having developed an interest in politics, Rush expressed his feelings about the Stamp Act.” For another, he is inclined to recite Rush’s scholarly and medical achievements without much commentary, making this account of little use to historians of science.
Still, readers without much knowledge of Rush—and that would be most people—will find this an accessible introduction to the man and his tumultuous times.