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Enduring legacy of a founding father

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The 200th anniversary of the death of the physician, writer, educator and humanitarian Benjamin Rush falls on 19 April 2013. He was one of the so-called “Founding Fathers” of the US, being one of the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence.

Rush was born on 24 December 1745, near Philadelphia. In 1766 he left to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After graduating he returned to the University of Philadelphia, where he was appointed professor of chemistry, a post he held until his death. In 1770 he published the first US textbook of chemistry.

Rush also opened a private medical practice, bringing medical care to the poorest sections of Philadelphia. He was a social activist, campaigning for scientific education for all, including women, and for public medical clinics for the poor. In 1776, he was elected to Congress, and he signed the Declaration of Independence on 2 August.

Rush’s medical practice relied heavily on the techniques of purging and blood-letting favoured by William Cullen, his mentor at Edinburgh. He continued with this practice when it became outdated and largely discredited. This led to conflict with his fellow members of the medical profession, and damaged his reputation as a physician for a period after his death.

Perhaps his most enduring legacy is the patented pill that was distributed to the troops fighting the American Revolutionary War. Called Dr Rush’s Bilious Pills, but nicknamed “Rush’s Thunderbolts”, they contained 10 grains (approximately 650mg) of calomel (mercurous chloride) and up to 15 grains (almost 1,000mg) of jalap. Both are potent laxatives.

His theory was that the pills’ purgative effect reduced biliousness and warded off illness. But the virtually meat-only diet of the troops meant that the pills were often employed as conventional laxatives. Mercury still present in the soil has enabled historians to map troop movements with great accuracy.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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