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Benjamin Rush
(1745 - 1813)

picture of Benjamim Rush
Philadelphia's Benjamin Rush was known by his supporters as the Hippocrates of American Medicine and by his detractors as a quack. His school of "heroic medicine" was influential with early American doctors but less popular with their patients. Rush argued for curing disease with its equivalent in the manner of homeopathy, though his concept of counterirritation was more violent. Blistering, puking, sweating and purging were among his favourite recommendations. The vast majority of diseases were supposedly caused by overstimulation of the nerves and blood. Rush laid particular stress on the role of excessive tension in the arterial system. His remedy was prodigious quantities of blood-letting. Most doctors of his era combined "depletive" nostrums with heroic doses of restorative "tonics" - mainly ethyl alcohol, chinchona and opium. Rush favoured the near-universal application of "depletive" remedies. In his Commonplace Book in the Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (1793, cited by Glucklich in Sacred Pain, OUP, 2001), Rush observes:
All evils cured by evil [etc]. Diseases cure each other, as gout and mania, dropsy, consumption, etc. Even remedies are nothing but the means of exciting new diseases. Whipping a dog prevents the effect of Nux Vomica....What would be the effect of hot iron after swallowing poison?
        Decades after his death, devotees of Rush-style "heroic medicine" denounced etherizaton and the fanciful notion of pain-free medicine, especially in childbirth. Critics of anaesthesia and pain-relief alleged that successful labour depended on the "life force"; nothing must be done to weaken "vitality".

        The influence of vitalist metaphysics and heroic medicine has lately declined. But contemporary opponents of technologies to alleviate mental distress are prone to believe that abolishing suffering will rob human beings of their vital essence - and perhaps turn us into insipid milksops like the soma-addled utopians of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.


Benjamin Rush
Utopian Surgery
The Good Drug Guide
Utopian Pharmacology
Refs and Further Reading
Anaesthesia and Anaesthetics
Critique of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World