Destroying Angel: Benjamin Rush,
Yellow Fever and the Birth of Modern Medicine
by Bob Arnebeck
In 1797 Rush saw his first yellow fever patient on July 8, and, in consultation with Dr. Physick, saw another on the 15th. Both recovered "by the use of plentiful depleting remedies."(1) On August 1 Rush was called to Nathaniel Lewis who had a store by the Penn Street wharf. His symptoms, principally constant puking, were not favorable but the weather was.(2) A northeaster with heavy rains got a grip on the city. The merchant died on the 6th. On the same day a merchant with a store near Lewis's died with marked symptoms of yellow fever, as did a boy in another store whose master was very sick.(3)
Rush's doctrines did not readily explain what was happening. The wharves in the area were clean; the weather continued rainy and cool; and among the victims were respectable merchants. Thus there was no apparent local source of mephitic air; the atmosphere did not seem conducive to an epidemic; and the first victims did not have any apparent debility making them prone to get the fever. Most troubling, Rush found himself in the unique position of not being the first to identify the epidemic.
On August 9 William Currie asked Dr. Wistar to join him on his rounds. They visited three yellow fever patients near Penn Street. Currie had already treated a pilot who survived a bad fever after bringing the ship Arethusa from the West Indies into port. The crew of the ship Iris which docked next to the Arethusa had been decimated by the fever, and one sailor died. Currie immediately suspected contagion brought in from the West Indies.(4)
On the 14th the Governor asked for the opinion of the city's doctors. Rush for once was a voice of calm. While he did have five cases, one perhaps "from contagion," "it appears to be the same fever which has existed after warm weather, time out of mind, in our city, in common with most of the cities of the United States."(5)
Currie's and Rush's supporters treated newspaper readers to the usual vehement debate between importation and local origin. Currie insisted the length of quarantine, five days, was "ridiculous and farcical." Currie blamed the clothing of dead seaman and used racism as well as anti-immigrant feeling to tar one of the ships suspected of bringing the contagion - it had carried slaves from Haiti to Cuba before sailing north. He made one valid point: captains were notorious for lying about the health of their ship.(6) That indeed was what the Rushites based their case on, the affidavits of captains that their ships were healthy.
The Rushites also found a reason for every suspicious fever. A pilot who got yellow fever after boarding a ship from the West Indies caught a chill from sleeping near an open window on board the ship during quarantine. The Rushites then found a ship not from the West Indies, i.e. not from a yellow fever region, that could have infected the waterfront, not with contagious matter but pollution. The Swedish ship Navigation arrived from Marseilles just before the fever struck. In its hold was a mass of putrefying vegetable matter, "such as prunes, almonds, olives, capers." The smell sickened many who were exposed to it. Just as the '93 epidemic had been sparked by rotting coffee, the '97 fever also arose from putrefying vegetable matter. Since the source of the mephitic air had been in an unventilated ship's hold, it had not been immediately noticed and rumor had blamed the last ship from the West Indies instead. Currie then got affidavits from that captain to prove that his ship was not the culprit.(7)
The city seemed oblivious to medical quarreling and advice. It quickly worked itself into a panic. Although the college assured the governor that only 10 or 12 had died near Penn Street and not many more were sick,(8) people sensed impending danger. Margaret Morris lost half her family in '93, and was desperate not to lose more. A cousin searched all villages nearby but "every place" was full. She finally took her extended family to Burlington, New Jersey, the village she had left 20 years ago to move to the great metropolis.(9)
Many blamed city officials for causing the panic by filling the newspapers with terrifying pronouncements. Indeed the health committee and governor announced an intimidating plan of action, including roping off and evacuating infected neighborhoods and putting yellow flags on the doors of infected houses. That Rush and the College of Physicians had recommended such measures didn't make them seem any less intimidating. The governor ordered "camps," 20 to 30 tents set up in a common between Broad Street and the Schuylkill, well away from infected areas, to accommodate those healthy people who were evacuated. Twenty-four health wardens picked by the health committee enforced regulations and sent people to the tents and the fever hospital. The city had lost its lease on Bush Hill. Agitation by the committee, the college, and others for a state built fever hospital had gone unheeded. A quarantine hospital built on an island below the city was too small, so the health committee prepared the old Wigwam tavern on the east bank of the Schuylkill for fever victims. Three veterans of '93 Caleb Lownes, John Connelly and Stephen Girard volunteered to run the hospital. Drs. Edward Stevens and Samuel Duffield served as staff physicians.(10)
City leaders also increased the panic by example. The federal government fled. The Treasury department, which had suffered many deaths in '93, moved out to the banks of the Schuylkill.(11) The state legislature met on August 29. It passed an emergency appropriation of $10,000 to finance health measures and relief, and then adjourned.(12) Meanwhile the official death toll and number of hospital admissions, reported daily in the press, were low. At the end of August there were only 20 patients in the hospital, 5 convalescent and 15 sick.(13) Yet the generally accepted count was that by the end of August 35,000 people had left the city.(14)
The city government and its health establishment demoralized the city by bickering over the proper response. Many doctors attacked the health committee for precipitate action in removing patients. Despite the college's suggestion that physicians give regular reports to the health committee, doctors' refused to out of fear, it was said, that the committee would spirit their patients away. Unknown parties began removing the yellow flags the committee placed on infected houses and tore down the barricades the committee placed around infected areas.(15)
Even after accounts that the fever only spread in Southwark and Kensington, the poor areas just out side of the city, the flight from the city continued. The alarm, Rush thought, was unjustified.(16) Newspaper editors and doctors tried to encourage people to stay. Currie assured readers that though the fever was contagious, one could avoid getting it by avoiding close confinement with the sick or in infected houses.(17) Rush wrote to the health committee canceling advice in his recently published book. They should not fence off infected streets, and not even remove people to the hospital. It was best to send physicians out to people.(18) Such reassurances were defeated by a succession of damp, sultry days.
As disturbing as the disbelief in his etiology must have been, Rush had to have taken pleasure in the wide acceptance of his remedies so evident in the early days of the epidemic. There were at least a dozen doctors eagerly using them exactly as he outlined in his latest book. Almost all other practitioners bled and purged to a degree. Currie advised "judicious bleeding and mercurial purges" soon after the attack, and in one case bled up to 11 times.(19) Dr. Griffitts wrote a broadside assuring citizens that with calomel, jalap, bleeding, fresh air, and keeping the patient and sick room well scrubbed with vinegar or a "mixture of oil of vitriol and salt peter," they could survive any attack of fever.(20) Even Dr. Stevens, avatar of baths in '93, used mercury at the hospital.(21) Throughout the city prudent people swore by "Rush's pills" which they took every other day to ward off sickness. In an August 22 letter Rush could report a lower mortality due to "the more liberal use of depleting remedies."(22)
The only alternative treatments suggested were by outsiders. Two French doctors from the West Indies urged gentle evacuations.(23) On September 1 a newspaper published a letter from David Hosack, the New York doctor, which recommended sweating, with perhaps some purges, but advised that on no account should a patient be bled. Laymen suggested remedies such as essence of spruce.(24)
Yet though his cures reigned supreme, Rush bristled when he heard any irresponsible criticism of them. This epidemic he resolved to do something about it. On August 27, he threatened to sue a man for defamation because he had said that Rush had bled a girl to death and had mistaken a case of gout for yellow fever. "I have been too long and too much accustomed to scandal to feel in the present instance for myself," he wrote to the defamer. "But it is of some consequence to my patients... at the present destroying crisis to confide in my opinions and prescriptions. I have for their sakes determined to investigate and expose every falsehood that is propagated against me and when it is actionable to prosecute the author of them."(25)
Rush had time for such contretemps. Until the end of August he was not that busy. Then the epidemic spread. Two colleagues, Physick and Nicholas Way, got the fever. Rush began to advise friends in poor health to leave. On the 30th he wrote in his notebook that all fevers in the city were malignant, i.e. there was a reigning epidemic. On September 1 Rush had five new cases.(26) Then the 2nd was another one of those awful days.
Fifty-one year old Nicholas Way had come to Philadelphia from Wilmington in 1794, encouraged by his old friend and classmate Benjamin Rush and lured by an appointment to a federal government sinecure, treasurer of the Mint. He became one of the city's top obstetrician.(27) During the epidemic he organized a group of doctors to visit the poor. When he got the fever on the 28th, he told Rush that he thought his taking a ride in the night air was the cause.
Way bled himself twice before calling for Rush, who found him with a "full and tense" pulse and urged more bleeding, especially since Way confessed that his earlier bleedings had not been copious. Way pleaded that his age made further bleeding dangerous. Rush won the argument enough to get two more bleedings that day in which 6 or 7 ounces of blood were removed.(28)
When Way died, a few days later, Rush was accused of bleeding his old friend to death. Evidently Rush snapped. All the bitter recriminations and loathing that embittered the waning weeks of the '93 epidemic tormented him again. On September 4, Elias Boudinot, Director of the Mint and Julia Rush's uncle, wrote to his boss, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, informing him of Way's death and adding, "I have seen Dr. Rush, whose mind is greatly clouded by the present appearance of the disorder," and alluding to "the distress he is so constantly involved in, by means of his professional business." (Boudinot also suggested that Rush be appointed to Way's position at the Mint.)(29)
"The city teems with scandal against my practice," Rush wrote in his notebook on the 5th.(30) That same day, Rush's good friend Samuel Coates wrote to his daughter who had asked about the rumors. "Dr. Rush assures me," Coates wrote, "that Dr. Way, including both times that he bled himself, has lost in the whole but 45 ounces of blood, and I do expect that Dr. Physick, who is by far a weaker man, has not loss less than 120 [and was still alive]; how cruel then must those reports be, that Dr. Rush bled him to death!" Coates thought a more likely reason was "poor nursing, his Negro woman who attended him appeared to me be a thick dunderheaded thing and a little boy who was to watch him was found twice asleep by one of his doctors. Yet Rush is all to blame - says every ninny hammer you meet, without knowing any thing but vulgar report which is founded in error."(31)
In a letter he wrote on the 6th that was tailored for publication, Rush explained his treatment of Way. "In all, he lost but little more than 40 ounces of blood, a quantity most of our physicians now find by far too small to subdue an acute case of our fever."(32)
Rush got reports identifying sources of the rumors. He demanded and received explanation from three gentlemen including Drs. Hodge and Wistar. Rush assured the other that Way must have had some 400 ounces of blood in his body "in his ordinary health," and "in the beginning of disease, this quantity is often increased by the sudden stoppage of all the excretions." Then Rush heard that Kuhn was telling people that Way died after losing 188 ounces of blood.(33)
As Rush stewed, his disciples rallied to his cause. Coxe, Rush's apprentice in '93 since returned with an Edinburgh M.D., provided the newspapers with a long essay repeating Rush's arguments for bleeding. He provided a list of 22 patients who had been cured after having been bled from 30 ounces (in three hours) in the case of a 6 year old child to Dr. Physick who was bled 176 ounces. Coxe addressed the Way case in a footnote. He had only lost 40 to 45 ounces "from an unfortunate prejudice to this noble remedy, in its necessary extent, in his own case."(34) In rebuttal "Medicus Spectator," argued that listing people who survived bloodletting proved nothing since one could list many more who recovered without, or at most, two bleedings.(35)
Meanwhile the death toll began to rise. On Monday the 11th newspapers headlined that 57 had died in the last 48 hours. During the same period in 1793, 52 people had died.(36) There was renewed panic in the city.(37) "Considering that nearly one half of our citizens have fled," Rush wrote to a friend in Massachusetts, "the mortality tho apparently less, is probably as great as it was at this time of year in 1793." Rush worried "when and where it will end, is known only to that Being who controls and governs all the physical, as well as moral evil of our world." However Rush kept his family with him for the moment because the sickness was "chiefly in the south part of the city."(38)
So far the city had avoided the rancorous controversies over remedies so demoralizing in 1793. But, with the epidemic spreading the newspaper editor William Cobbett decided the practice of bleeding had to be attacked. "Many gentlemen," Cobbett later wrote, "expressed to me their dread of the practice, and their indignation at the arts that were made use of to render it prevalent." They wanted a newspaper to decry "what other newspapers had been employed to extol."(39) Cobbett himself had published Coxe's essay, but the "arts" Cobbett loathed were testimonials. On the 14th the Philadelphia Gazette printed a testimonial from Physick. Losing 176 ounces of blood in 22 bleedings over 10 days, combined with "copious evacuations from" his bowels "and a moderate salivation," had saved his life. On the 18th the Aurora printed an extract of a letter from a Wilmington doctor reporting on the benefits of bleeding in his practice.
Cobbett had attacked Rush once before. In late 1796 Rush was asked by the American Philosophical Society to eulogize its late president, the astronomer David Rittenhouse. Rush principally spoke of Rittenhouse's scientific achievements, but he and Rush had been political allies in 1776. So he did not neglect Rittenhouse's republicanism, describing it not in the partisan terms of the day, but as a simple, life long antipathy to monarchy. Cobbett, a British citizen, attacked the doctor for speaking out of his expertise and thus being used, as Rittenhouse himself had been when he accepted the presidency of the Democratic Society, as a naive front for French terrorists. (Britain and France were then at war.) "The remorseless Doctor Rush shall bleed me till I am as white as this paper," Cobbett wrote in January 1797, "before I'll allow that this [Rittenhouse's republicanism] was 'doing good to mankind.'"(40)
The assault in Cobbett's Porcupine's Gazette began with satire, a jocular letter from a Tavern Keeper. Business was down so that worthy announced he was joining the purging and bleeding doctors. In his line of work he already knew a great deal about evacuation, especially of his patrons' purses.(41) On that same day, September 18, the Gazette of the United States printed two serious attacks on bleeding. "An Enquirer After Truth" argued, "What purpose can any man expect to answer by informing us that 40 men have been found, whom it was impracticable to bleed to death." Three people died from such bleeding for every one that was cured. "Paracelsus" quoted liberally from Le Sage's Gil Blas, and rued the need to attack modern Dr. Sangrados, but it was necessary to expose "similar folly and wickedness." For good measure "A Citizen" attacked the doctrine of local origin of yellow fever as designed to destroy the city more effectively than any epidemic could. None of the three articles mentioned Rush.
On the 19th Cobbett was not so shy. Under a headline "MEDICAL PUFFING" and a couplet "The times are ominous indeed/ When quack to quack cries purge and bleed," Cobbett objected to the seemingly unceasing extracts from letters extolling bleeding, and expressed his indignation at "the arts that our remorseless Bleeder is making use of to puff off his preposterous practice." "Blood, blood! still they cry more blood! - In every sentence they menace our poor veins." Cobbett then quoted the puff published in the Aurora on the 18th that extolled bleeding and mercury. "Dr. Rush," Cobbett continued, "in that emphatical stile which is peculiar to himself, calls Mercury 'the Samson of medicine.' In his hands and in those of his partisans it may indeed be justly compared to Samson; for, I verily believe they have slain more Americans with it, than ever Samson slew of the Philistines. The Israelite slew his thousands, but the Rushites have slain their tens of thousands."
At first in his notebook or extant private letters, Rush confided no immediate reaction to the attacks save to note that "the city teems with scandal against my practice." A few weeks later he wrote that the newspaper attacks upset Julia. "Such was the anguish of her distress that she wished to hear of my death, rather than see me 'butchered alive.'"(42) The attacks were not without consolation. Rush could comfort himself that they were consistent with his earlier suspicions. It was his signature on the Declaration of Independence as much as his medical practices that they despised. Cobbett was a monarchist.(43) The Fennos, who edited the Gazette, were spokesmen for Alexander Hamilton, who had not signed the sacred document and who during the Constitutional Convention, it was widely believed, argued in favor of monarchy.(44) But Rush had resolved, for the sake of his patients, to try to stop attacks on his remedies. On October 2 he sued Cobbett and Fenno for libel.(45)
The suit did not silence the press, but did seem to make their political motivation evident. Fenno accused Rush of hatching a new system of medicine to sate his "thirst for popularity.... Luckily for him along comes the French revolution, rendering blood the most popular topic of conversation." Below Fenno's reply to Rush was a "communication" noting that "the chief of our blood-letters is highly democratic, and that his sectaries bleed in a direct ratio to their political concurrence with him;... and may we not see in this dreadful propensity an omen of what the reign of Jacobinism would produce?"(46)
There were sharp political divisions at the time between pro-French Jefferson Republicans and pro-British Hamilton Federalists. But partisans of both sides saw through the supposed partisan dimension of the dispute over bleeding. Leading Federalists politicians supported Rush for Way's job at the Mint. One noted that Rush had "meddled very little in public affairs for some time past," was "unacquainted with public occurrences," and thus inattentive "to political movements."(47) The leading Republican editor Freneau so opposed bleeding and purging that he could ascribe no political motive to Cobbett, even after publicly hoping the epidemic would claim the British editor as a victim.(48)
With an election a few weeks away, the epidemic would seem to be a likely issue. There was a hotly contested race for state senator between a Republican famed for relief work during the epidemics, and a Federalist who had left the city.(49) But judging from campaign material in the newspapers, both parties were not inclined to assign blame for the failure to clean wharves, pave streets, and enforce quarantines. The Aurora, the city's principal Republican newspaper, cited the example of New York Republicans, who attacked a law banning chandlers, sugar bakers, steam brewers and distillers from the city, as a case of the "high born" oppressing the "poor and industrious classes" because their "delicate noses" were offended.(50) But Republicans did not point to any oppressive health measures yet taken in Pennsylvania. Gov. Mifflin after all was a Republican, and he appointed most of those in charge of enforcing the health laws.
The attempt to cope with the epidemics created controversy and divisions but not along partisan political lines. Fenno's charge that bleeding doctors were Republicans was not accurate. Coxe, Caldwell and Joseph Strong, who were numbered among the bleeders, were Federalist sympathizers. A case could not even be made that Federalists were more judicious in their use of bleeding, because no one was more judicious in any practice than the Republican Wistar, and Coxe was very much Rush's Leporello, proudly keeping a list of ounces bled.(51)
The animus of the opposition to Rush arose from an opposition to the new activist medicine. Freneau expressed it in two poems that he published that November. The sick were wiser not to seek professional help:
OLD WOMAN, with their simple herbs and teas
(And asking hardly two-pense for their fees)
Disarm the dreadful epidemic fever....(52)
The attacks on doctors also represented a resurgence of the colonial mentality in which protection of commerce was paramount. Treasury secretary Oliver Wolcott doubted that there was an epidemic. He blamed the health committee's forcing people from their homes for exciting terror, and bleeding for assuring the deaths of many of the intemperate poor. "The general interest of the country," Wolcott explained in a letter to President Adams, "requires that as little public notice be taken of this sickness, especially as some of the physicians have erroneously attributed to it a domestic origin. The loss of capital & credit which Philadelphia must suffer cannot be easily calculated."(53)
The merchant Samuel Hodgson heard that Rush said every breath could bring death in the infected city. Hodgson fumed that Rush behaved "like a man escaped from Bedlam," and "such speeches coming from him will do our city more injury than a thousand such men.... Good God can the people be any longer deceived by a Mountebank and resign all their comforts into the bloody hand of experiments and inconsistency."(54) Although we know Rush was wrong about respiration being dangerous, that in no way makes Hodgdon's opinion any better informed. There was yellow fever in the city. There was cause for alarm.
Underlining the concern of men like Wolcott and Hodgdon was that the city was in the midst of financial woes. The failures of several of the city's financial powers had crippled economic expansion. One of Stephen Girard's correspondents in Baltimore was shocked that authorities let doctors raise an alarm further paralyzing commerce, "the effects of which must be a thousand times more baneful to your city than the much dreaded effects of yellow fever."(55) After that prompting Girard wrote a short note to the Philadelphia Gazette attacking William Currie, "the hero of the contagionists."(56)
For the moment Rush did not see himself so much the martyr to the advancement of science. He took the affront much more personally. His announcement of his suit in the press requested that editors not "insert anything in your paper which may be offered in answer to those publications, or in defense of my character." Then in a letter he complained to an old friend that he had "not merited the indifference with which the citizens of Philadelphia have witnessed the butchery of my character." He then added that "the persecutions of our Saviour were most aggravated when he was performing the highest acts of mercy to his creatures."(57) A few days after that he wrote to Dr. Rodgers in New York informing him that he wished to leave Philadelphia where he lived "as if in a foreign country," and solicited an appointment to the Columbia College medical school.(58)
Actually many had rallied to Rush's defense before he filed his libel suit. To the Tavern Keeper, A Hostler replied that bleeding and purging had cured him and to him Rush was a "god-like philanthropist."(59) There were personal testimonials on the efficacy of bleeding.(60) On the 26th, "A Looker-On" in Bradford's Merchants Daily Advertiser reported that he had determined after talking with physicians and their patients in Southwark that "on an average 11 out of 12 of all who are plentifully bled, recover." At the hospital where bleeding was little used "more have died than have been cured." Bradford printed a list of 26 doctors who used bloodletting in yellow fever. The same day Rush announced his suit, Fenno printed a defense of Rush from "H.", that compared Rush to the great Harvey and explained why Rush did not deign to notice his attackers: "The enemies of Dr. Rush may be assured that their vile and illiberal scandal cannot disturb the tranquility of his exalted mind."(61)
Of course, Rush's mind was in no such state. Not only were the public attacks distressing, his remedies were not working as promised. A report he wrote to Dr. Rodgers on September 25 did not have the confidence of the letter he wrote to him in October 1793 about the success of his remedies. The fever was "attended with a malignity which was less common in fevers in 1793 and 1794. Nearly every case of it requires the exertions of a single combat in a battle to overcome it. Such is the force with which it affects the system in many cases on its first attack,... that remedies whether depleting or stimulating make no impression upon it."
However, that said, Rush did not back off on the efficacy of his remedies. He had not lost a single patient in whom he had "been able to excite a salivation." He not only gave mercury internally but also rubbed it on patients. As for bloodletting its success had "been limited in many cases by a revival of the old clamors and prejudices." He did not list the amounts of blood drawn from patients, as he had been in the habit of doing for the past four years. Indeed he claimed he was "falsely accused of [bleeding] in all cases." He and his associates cured with "one or two venesections, and some by purges only or a salivation.... We consider fever as an unit and are governed in our prescriptions by its force, by the predisposition and habits of our patients, and lastly by the pulse." In closing he gave Rodgers permission to have the letter printed. "It may be useful elsewhere. Here, where I am scarcely tolerated, it can do no good."(62)
Adding to his distress was the physical toll fighting the epidemic took,(63) and the presence of his son John who had joined him as an apprentice. The two had an uneasy relationship. The father had quashed any propensity to rebellion. Learning that John had broken rules at Princeton, Rush had withdrawn him from the college in 1794. In 1796 he had sailed as a surgeon's mate in a merchant ship to Calcutta.(64) As will become evident, like many young gentlemen in that era, John brought back from the sea an unforgiving sense of honor. The father's recourse to the libel laws may have been a way to demonstrate to his son that there were other stern and acceptable ways of combating pernicious innuendo better than challenging someone to a duel.
But his legal strategy back fired and attacks on his character increased. On the 6th, Fenno opened his pages to someone who was able to go beyond political cant. Fenno titled the attack: "Respecting Dr. Rush's conduct and transactions during the prevalence of the malignant fever of 1793 - Communicated by one of the Members of the College of Physicians." Rush's anonymous colleague ridiculed Rush's performance in 1793. He quoted Rush's enthusiastic reports about his treatment and then noted wryly that after those reports the death toll rose and there were deaths in Rush's "own family." The author accused Rush of profiting from the sale of his pills, irresponsibly teaching blacks how to bleed and sending them out to terrorize the community, making the preposterous statement "purge and bleed all Kensington!," and scaring patients, some of whom the author named. "Those acquainted with the causes and laws of contagion thought him insane." Purging had become acceptable in yellow fever, but the author minimized the credit due to Rush. Dr. Hodge had used calomel first.
Despite the vicious attack, support in the newspaper seemed to tilt toward Rush. Physicians came to the defense of bleeding. Dr. Francis Sayre, pointed out that bleeding was not new. It was only new in this country because "pestilential diseases..., till very lately, have been almost strangers to us." Of his 16 yellow fever patients, he had sent 3 to the hospital and treated 13 with varying degrees of bleeding, up to 70 ounces in one case. All those he bled had been cured or were convalescent. Sayre called for other physicians to candidly report on their practice.(65)
William Currie was the first to do so, reporting that he had found "a frequent repetition of blood-letting... frequently salutary" in '93. In 1797, prior to his leaving the city, he treated 70 patients and 54 recovered. Currie concluded that bleeding and purging were beneficial and, in cases with inflammation, essential. "The abuse, the excess, or the mis-timed application of bleeding, therefore, and not its judicious and well-timed application, should be condemned and rejected in the yellow fever. But to condemn and reject it in all cases indiscriminately, argues not only want of experience, but of reading, reflection and common sense."(66)
None of that soothed Rush. He decided that Dr. Andrew Ross had led the attacks against him and wrote the October 6 article. Ross was an Englishman who had been in the city for several years and in 1793 had chaired the meeting of the College of Physicians at which Rush's letter of resignation had been accepted, and Rush's theory of the fever's origin rejected. On October 16, Rush's son John sent Dr. Ross a short paragraph "demanding" that he admit that he was the author of the October 6 attack. Ross dismissed young Rush as an "impertinent puppy." John Rush demanded an apology. When Ross did not, Rush bludgeoned him with a cane cutting Ross's face and head. Ross then promptly challenged Benjamin Rush to a duel. Dueling was against the law in Pennsylvania so Rush had Ross arrested. Ross's friends stood bail and relieved him of the indignity of going to jail.(67)
Then on October 21 William Currie had a letter read to Benjamin Rush in which he informed him of his writing the offending article. He explained that he wrote it to discredit Rush's claim "to important discoveries in the healing arts," and to elucidate the best way to treat yellow fever. He had the letter printed in Fenno's Gazette of the 24th, adding that he had received no reply save one from John Rush which was so "abusive and insulting" that he dismissed him as "either a lunatic or a ruffian."(68) (With accusations of insanity rife, it bears noting that in 1807 Rush committed his son John to the Pennsylvania Hospital's wards for the insane.(69) In the later years of his life, while not committed, Currie walked the streets accosting people with zany turns of phrase, his evident insanity perhaps cheating the nation of further works from one who had studied yellow fever since 1793.(70))
In retaliation, Rushites charged Currie with "RANK MEANNESS AND ENVY;" he was a "hypocrite medical weather cock;" a "scribbling genius" who has not "been regularly educated." "Alas! poor Rush!" exclaimed another writer, "Thou hast so many mosquitoes buzzing about thy head." Yet another writer remembered that early in his career, Currie resorted to handbills to get business until Rush helped him out; he had challenged someone to a duel in '93; and he was ever using old fashioned remedies to the detriment of his patients.(71)
Coxe wrote several long articles in defense of Rush's work in 1793. He had been with Rush in Kensington when his carriage was stopped, not by a crowd, but by one gentleman who pressed Rush to see some sick poor people. After begging that he had others to see in the city, Rush had calmly told him, as he was telling every one else, of the necessity to purge and bleed. In "a jocular manner," he added "that he might apply that advice to the whole village." Here was no insane man, but one trying to make the best of a bad situation. Currie himself, in 1793, had acknowledged the necessity of Rush's methods. Rush never claimed to have been the first to purge or bleed. What was important was his continuing fight against the disease. He had never left his post like Currie who had deserted his patients during the recent epidemic. "From this time forward," Coxe concluded, Currie "must be viewed with horror and contempt."(72)
A few weeks later Governor Mifflin would complain to the legislature about the disgraceful scientific controversy, but shaken by another epidemic, the city's establishment once again ignored the Quaker petitions about closing theatres,(73) and looked to science to prevent the next epidemic.
Go to Chapter 13
1. Rush 1815 vol. 4, p 3.
2. Rush Notebook. undated, 1797.
3. Drinker Diary Aug. 6, 1797.
4. Wistar Notebook, COP.
5. Proceedings p 15; Aurora Aug. 18, 1797.
6. Phil. Gaz. Aug. 21, 1797.
7. Aurora Aug. 21, and Phil. Gaz. Aug. 25, 1797.
8. Proceedings p 17.
9. Morris to daughter Aug. 19, 1797, Haverford.
10. Aurora Aug. 22 & 24, 1797, Phil. Gaz. Aug. 26, 1797; Folwell p 17.
11. Pickering to Adams Aug. 24, 1797, MHS, Aurora Sept. 4, 1797.
12. Aurora Aug. 30, 1797.
13. Aurora Sept 1, 1797.
14. Dawson to Madison, Sept. 7, 1797, Rutledge.
15. Folwell pp 14-17; Rush Notebook Aug. 26, 1797; Phil. Gaz. Aug. 28, 1797; Por. Gaz. Aug. 25, 1797.
16. Butterfield p 788.
17. Aurora Aug. 21, 1797.
18. Rush to committee Aug. 30, 1797, Rush Papers.
19. Phil. Gaz. Aug. 26, 30, Sept. 4, 1797.
20. Phil. Gaz. Sept. 8, 1797.
21. Currie 1799 p 27.
22. Rush to Webster Aug. 22, 1797.
23. Aurora Aug. 29, 1797.
24. Por. Gaz. Sept. 1, 1797.
25. Rush to Moultrie Aug. 27, 1797, Rush Papers.
26. Rush Notebook.
27. Butterfield p 789.
28. Rush 1815 vol. 4 pp 18-9.
29. Butterfield p 1209n.
30. Rush Notebook.
31. Coates to Amy Coates Sept. 5, 1797, Graatz, HSP.
32. Phil. Gaz. Sept. 19, 1797.
33. Wharton to Rush, Rush to Hodge both Sept. 9; Rush to Green and return, Sept. 10, Wistar to Rush & Wharton to Rush both Sept. 12, 1797, Rush Papers.
34. Phil. Gaz. Sept. 12, 1797.
35. Phil. Gaz. Sept. 15, 1797.
36. Phil. Gaz. Sept. 11, 1797.
37. Scattergood diary Sept. 12, 1797.
38. Newburyport Impartial Herald Sept. 19, 1797.
39. Rush-Light p 76.
40. Por. Censor, "The Festival of Fools," Jan. 1797, p 34.
41. Por. Gaz. Sept. 18, 1797.
42. Rush Notebook Sept. 5 & Oct. 5, 1797.
43. H. Adams p 82.
44. Elkins p 240 & 316.
45. Butterfield p 792.
46. Gaz. of U.S. Oct. 5, 1797.
47. Butterfield p 1210.
48. Time Piece Sept. 6 & 11, & Oct. 18, & Nov. 6, 13, 15, 1797.
49. Schultz pp 146-7 (however I disagree with Schultz's analysis suggesting a marked political dimension to relief during the epidemic.)
50. Aurora Oct. 10, 1797.
51. see Caldwell's letter in Por. Gaz. Sept. 10, 1797; on Coxe and Wistar see Rush-Light p 144; on Strong see Cronin pp 380-1 (I assume from his background and closeness to Smith that Strong was a Federalist.)
52. Freneau pp 601-2.
53. Wolcott to Adams Sept. 25, 1797, MHS.
54. Butterfield p 791.
55. Arnebeck pp 411, 451; Bentalou to Girard Aug 27, 1797, APS.
56. Aurora Sept. 2, 1797.
57. Butterfield p 793.
58. Ibid. p 794.
59. Por. Gaz. Sept. 21, 1797.
60. e.g. Phil. Gaz. Sept. 22, 1797.
61. Gaz. of U.S. Oct. 2, 1797.
62. Butterfield p790-1.
63. Rush 1815 vol. 4 p 17.
64. Corner pp 369-70.
65. Gaz. of U.S. Oct. 7, 1797.
66. Ibid. Oct. 10, 1797.
67. Rush-Light pp 18-24.
68. Gaz. of U.S. Oct 24, 1797.
69. Corner op. cit.
70 Samuel Rush, "Occasional Glimpse of the world," HSP.
71. Mer. Daily Adv. Oct. 20, 27, 28, 30 & Nov. 3, 1797.
72. Gaz. of U.S. Nov. 4, 5, & 14, 1797.
73. Phil. Gaz. Dec. 9, 1797 & Feb. 15, 1798.