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Stephen Fried Talks About the Fascinating Life of Dr. Benjamin Rush

Author Stephen Fried joined Thursday's talk show.
Author Stephen Fried joined Thursday's talk show.
Author Stephen Fried joined Thursday's talk show.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Author Stephen Fried joined Thursday's talk show.

Dr. Benjamin Rush is not yet the subject of a Ken Burns documentary, but he surely ought to be. The Philadelphia physician was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, an anonymous polemicist who helped inspire the Boston Tea Party and the editor of Thomas Paine’s wildly influential “Common Sense.” And, as detailed in a new biography by Stephen Fried, he both treated and became a close friend to several U.S. presidents. He personally brought Thomas Jefferson and John Adams back together after their friendship seemed permanently ended.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Fried discussed “Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father.” Published last year, the book is just out in paperback. 

As Fried acknowledges, Rush was very much a man of his time. Some of the treatments he used on patients, such as bloodletting, would be unthinkable today. Yet in many ways, he was a visionary. Fried says he was the Founding Father who was most adamantly opposed to slavery. He also made the case that mental illness was a disease — and one that deserved compassionate treatment. He wrote a book about “diseases of the mind” that is still widely cited today.

“He had very forward-looking ideas,” Fried said. 

Listen here:

Rush was also the medical adviser to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Among the provisions he instructed them to take: purging pills, believed to relieve their bodies of toxins. But while these pills, which contained mercury, would never be used as medical treatment today, Fried said they have helped historians greatly.

“One of the jokes about the Lewis and Clark expedition is that the reason we know where they went [is] because we know where they went,” Fried explained. “Rush gave them pills that caused diarrhea, and those pills had mercury in them. And because they had mercury in them, we can follow them. That’s part of the way that the re-creation of Lewis and Clark’s path can be done.”

Related Event

What: Rediscovering Benjamin Rush

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019

Where: Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112)

Have a question or comment about the life and times of Benjamin Rush? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group, and help inform our coverage.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis. She won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her work in Phoenix exposing corruption at the local housing authority. She also won numerous awards for column writing, including multiple first place wins from the Arizona Press Club, the Association of Women in Journalism (the Clarion Awards) and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. From 2015 to July 2019, Sarah was editor in chief of St. Louis' alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times. She and her husband, John, are raising their two young daughters and ill-behaved border terrier in Lafayette Square.