Doctor Benjamin Rush and Alcoholism

Dr. Benjamin Rush was a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, surgeon general of the Continental Army, a delegate to the Pennsylvania ratification convention, and an early advocate for the disease concept of alcoholism.

Born in Philadelphia in 1745, Benjamin was the fourth of seven children. His father died in 1751, and Benjamin was sent to live with his uncle and aunt when he was eight.

Graduating from the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) at the age of fourteen, he apprenticed under Dr. John Redman from 1761 to 1766, then continued his studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, earning a degree in medicine. During this time, he also became fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish.

In 1769, he returned to the Colonies and opened a medical practice in Philadelphia, and became a Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, later publishing the first American textbook on chemistry.

Dr. Rush was active in the Sons of Liberty, and was elected to the Continental Congress. Representing Pennsylvania, he signed the Declaration of Independence, also representing Philadelphia at Pennsylvania's own Constitutional Convention.

While representing Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress, he used his medical skills in the field, accompanying the Philadelphia Militia during battles that included the Battle of Princeton, and was ultimately appointed to serve as Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army.

Observing the condition and behavior of soldiers, he concluded that the heavy consumption of alcohol was more detrimental to the effectiveness of the Continental Army than were the actions of the British. In 1778, he published a report calling for the preservation of soldiers in which he exposed several myths regarding the consumption of alcohol.

In this report, he refuted the common belief that alcohol was a tonic, arguing that it provided no health benefits. He especially argued against the ideas that the consumption of alcohol could protect soldiers against the cold, or ward off fevers or camp diseases. Discrediting arguments that alcohol provided nutritional benefits, he insisted that excessive alcohol consumption could have only a debilitating effect on soldiers.

After the American Revolution was concluded, Dr. Rush devoted a great deal of time to studying the relationships between the mind and body, and is often credited with being the Father of American Psychiatry.

In further publications, Dr. Rush continued to argue that alcohol provided no significant medical benefits and that, to the contrary, hard liquor aggravated most diseases and caused others.

He also described the use of alcohol as being habit forming, stating that continued use would lead to progressive physical and moral decay.

Describing the condition of an alcoholic, he wrote, "In folly it causes him to resemble a calf; in stupidity, an ass; in roaring, a mad bull; in quarreling and fighting, a dog; in cruelty, a tiger; in fetor, a skunk; in filthiness, a hog; and in obscenity, a he-goat."

Clearly, political correctness was not in vogue during his day, but the substance of much of what he had to say holds true.

Dr. Rush also wrote that, "The use of strong drink is at first the effect of free agency. From habit it takes place and from necessity. That this is the case, I infer from persons who are inordinately devoted to the use of ardent spirits being irreclaimable, by all the considerations which domestic obligations, friendship, reputation, property, and sometimes even by those which religion and the love of life, can suggest to them. An instance of insensibility to the last, in an habitual drunkard, occurred some years ago in Philadelphia. When strongly urged, by one of his friends, to leave off drinking, he said, 'Were a keg of rum in one corder of a room, and were a cannon constantly discharging balls between me and it, I could not refrain from passing before that cannon, in order to get at the rum.'"

Dr. Rush's chief concern was over the use of distilled spirits, although today we know that people can become addicted to beer, wine, and hard cider, as well.

Dr. Rush was one of the first, if not the first prominent physician of his time to view alcoholism as a disease that required treatment. He urged the establishment of hospitals designed specifically for the treatment of alcoholism, referring to them as "sober houses."