Continuing the Conversation: Keep on Questioning

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I have been reading with interest the op-ed columns in the Dickinsonian. Over Fall Pause (what a wonderful thing!), I’ve had a chance to pause and reflect, and the time to offer a few comments in conversation with past commentators. I agree, we need to interrogate our leaders and ourselves – it’s a healthy practice. It helps to apply the same criteria by which we judge and to take the same care. Over the years I have found it particularly useful and effective if one critiques with humility and graciousness, and remains open to learning. For sure, sometimes a harsh critique is needed if the facts warrant that conclusion and often we question too little.

Our heroes are often multi-dimensional, complicated people. Take for example, Benjamin Rush about which much has been said and written, especially in the last few years at Dickinson. In two previous columns this fall, Rush was dismissed as a racist and then excused as “a man of his time.”

The question is, was Benjamin Rush a racist? Fact: He was an abolitionist. Was he living in a racist society? Fact: Absolutely. Where are we then? Can he be identified as a racist as a man of his time? Maybe. Can we be considered racists as men and women of our time? Maybe. What is the evidence by which we judge/decide?

A few years ago, rumors were running around campus that Rush was a monstrous racist who experimented on blacks by pouring acid all over their bodies. Very problematic indeed. But was it true? If so, we needed to know; if not, we needed to know. A number of faculty and administrators realized we knew very little about Benjamin Rush. In order to learn more, we created a summer study group (yep, we’re academics) to investigate and interrogate Dickinson’s founding father. We gathered to read and discuss many of Rush’s writings and secondary sources written about him.

What we discovered was:
Rush was an abolitionist. In an address he gave to the inhabitants of the British settlements on the slavery of the Negroes in America (1773), he clearly opposed the slave trade and slavery. At the end of his address, he speaks to the crime of slavery: “Remember that national crimes require national punishments, and without declaring what punishment awaits this evil, you may venture to assure them, that it cannot pass with impunity, unless God shall cease to be just and merciful.” (see Their Own Words:

Some of the rumors about Rush’s experiments likely comes from a misinterpretation of Harriet Washington’s words in Medical Apartheid. She writes that Rush “cataloged the methods that other physicians had used to whiten black skin and hair, including hydrochloric acid, bleeding, purging, the juice of unripe peaches, muriatic acid, and even pronounced fear.” (emphasis mine)

Professor of History, Jeremy Ball, followed up on Harriet Washington’s footnote in Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, which cites Charles D. Martin, The White African American Body (p. 149) as the source for Washington’s claim that Rush “cataloged the methods that other physicians had used to whiten black skin and hair… Rush did experiment with sulfuric acid on black skins, probably those of cadavers.” But Martin says only that Rush “recorded experiments with sulfuric acid in the attempt to bleach dark skin drastically and facilitate racial transformation,” (p. 149). According to Prof. Ball’s research, “there is no evidence that Rush himself experimented on black bodies with acid. He did record and cite others who experimented (this is all in his article “Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition that the Black Colour (as It is Called) of the Negroes Is Derived from the Leprosy” (American Philosophical Society Transactions, 4 1799: 289-297).

Ronald Takaki analyzes Rush’s 1792 lecture to the American Philosophical Society theorizing that African and African Americans’ skin color derived from a form of leprosy and that long-term residence in America might offer a “cure for blackness”. He also wrote passionately in favor of abolition and freed William, his African-born slave, after ten years of service, in 1794.

So these are some of the sources and findings. Through his medical practice, lectures, and writings, Rush gained a reputation as one of the leading physicians and medical theorists in the new nation. He was a pioneer in physiology and psychiatry. Rush solidified this reputation through his role in the terrible yellow fever epidemic that swept Philadelphia in 1793, remaining in the city and tending to the thousands stricken with the disease, utilizing his practice of “depleting” (i.e. bleeding, purging). Many blame Rush’s bleeding therapy for hastening the death of Benjamin Franklin and perhaps George Washington. Dedicated? Yes. Perfect? No. (See

Rush was against corporal punishment in schools: “Corporal punishment of any kind should be abolished. Physical punishment hurts mind, body, and drives children from the love of learning.” And he advocated for prison reform, for rehabilitating rather than publically punishing the criminal through hanging, and better treatment of mental illness. He also believed in creating a better system of schools on every level so that all children, girls as well as boys, could receive the benefits of a proper education; his dream included the creation of a national university.

His thoughts upon female education, not surprisingly, are mixed from today’s perspective: “…women’s education needs to be concentrated and should include excellent English, figures and book-keeping, a general knowledge of history, science, and geography sufficient to be a “good companion” to a learned man, together with vocal music, and Christianity.” Rush believed women of knowledge would reform society and domestic life. Was he a feminist – ahead of his time? or paternalistic?

This past spring marked the 200th anniversary of Benjamin Rush’s death in 1813. This anniversary, coupled with Rush’s importance in the college’s historical narrative, provides a good opportunity to examine our founder’s life, legacy, and intellectual contributions to American culture. As we explore Rush’s life and work this coming spring (2014), we will want to be alert to the complexity, contradictions, and ambiguities, and seek to develop methods for grappling with complex issues.

Rush was way ahead of his time – and both regressive and progressive from the perspective of the present. Complex, complicated, and controversial is Rush!…but then again, so are the times we live in.

PS: In reference to other columns and campus conversations this past fall, a note on questioning – whether it be BR or BDSM: questioning is not the same as shaming or vilifying.