Dr. Benjamin Rush

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Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush was one of the most important figures of the early medical school. As a distinguished physician in Philadelphia in the late 18th and early 19th century, he held several different titles at Penn’s early medical school from 1769 to his death in 1813. Most of the conversation surrounding Rush in recent years has focused on his abolitionism and anti-racism. It is certainly true that Rush was an abolitionist—he was a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in the 1780s and was even the president from 1803 to his death in 1813.

The University Archives contain his letters written during his time studying in Edinburgh from 1766 to 1768. These letters detail Rush’s life and his convictions about race and slavery. Rush’s autobiography said Rush held an enslaved man named William Grubber whom he writes that he freed after ten years. Further exploration led to a Dickinson College article, founded by Rush in 1783. Entitled “Benjamin Rush, Race, Slavery, and Abolitionism,” the article mentioned Rush’s belief that “the disease of leprosy caused the blackness in skin color” alongside its discussion of his well-known abolitionism and anti-racism writings.

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Dr. Benjamin Rush's article argues black skin caused by Leprosy.

This paper contains notable ideological contradictions. While the central argument is that black skin is caused by disease, Rush also writes that black people are as healthy as white people and that “claims of superiority the whites over the blacks ... are founded alike in ignorance and inhumanity.”  

However, in that same paper, Rush writes that attempts to “cure this disease of the skin in negroes” to change the skin from “black to a natural white flesh color” should be encouraged—clearly indicating a belief that blackness is unnatural.

Later in the same paper, he echoes rhetoric warning white people against interracial marriage, writing that

“a white woman in North Carolina not only acquired a dark color, but several of the features of a negro, by marrying and living with a black husband.”

Additionally, he furthers the harmful theory that black people had a “morbid insensibility” to pain. The contradictions throughout this paper reflect Rush’s personal contradictions.

Years later in 1799, Rush wrote a paper arguing that one could “remedy”  the skin color of black people, as he believed it resulted from leprosy. This indicates a possible change in his views on biological differences between the races. Nonetheless, his early ideas about race, while evidently not a frequent topic in his lectures, were enough to lay a foundation at Penn that would be followed by race scientists in the 19th century.


Professor Benjamin Rush

These sources and a new perspective on Rush’s conflicting personal views about slavery and racism directed the research towards what he was teaching his own medical students at Penn. Accessing these records served to add nuance to the conversation surrounding the figure frequently hailed for his abolitionism. In his lectures delivered before these publications, Rush performed in class dissections and taught about differences in the disease susceptibility of different races. By spreading the not-uncommon concept of race as being rooted in biological difference, he showed that he was a precursor of race science at Penn.

Rush's teachings helped lay the foundation for later teachings about race theory at Penn. For example, famous proponents of later racial pseudoscience such as Penn alumnus and professor Samuel George Morton, who published Crania Americana in 1839 while teaching at Penn, later taught entire courses on racial difference at the Penn Medical School. While medical theorists like Morton and his correspondent and fellow promoter of biologically based racial difference Josiah Clark Nott, who also graduated from Penn in 1827 and lectured at the university until 1829, were practitioners of race science, technically Rush was not. However, lecturing nearly half a century before these figures, Rush’s teachings about differences in the disease susceptibility of different races, and therefore spreading of the not-uncommon concept of race as being rooted in biological difference, show that he was a precursor of race science at Penn. 



University Archives indicate that Samuel Poultney was a student at Penn from 1785 to 1786, and these records include his notebook. The relevant entries in this notebook were taken during the year 1785. Poultney's notebook contains both lecture notes from Rush's class and a section labeled “cases” that contains notes on dissections. Most significantly, in the “cases” section of the notebook, Poultney recorded on April 13, 1785, the “dissection of a negro girl of Mr. Jones.”

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“Dissection of a Negro Girl of Mr. White Jones”

Excerpt from Samuel Poultney's notes

emphasis added

As this was in the notebook labeled as notes on Rush’s lectures, this dissection most likely occurred in Rush’s class as part of instruction. Poultney’s use of the word “we” (saying, for instance, “we found upon the external part of the lungs […]”) indicates that the dissection was actively performed in front of students. While it is likely that Rush did not perform the dissection himself, if it occurred in Rush’s lecture then it was evidently performed under his authority.

Poultney records that “the girl was sixteen years of age,” but nothing else about who the girl was. This lack of detail stands out compared to other entries in this section. For example, in an earlier entry, Poultney records the dissection of a “Doctor Joseph Kendle,” who likely was white. The inclusion of the name of the person whose body was dissected immediately stands in contrast to the later entry. The most significant difference between this entry and the entry for the sixteen-year-old girl, however, is here that Poultney discusses consent. Poultney writes that “a few hours before his death [Kendle] desired Doctor Foulk to examine his body after his death.”

While not every other entry mentions the consent of the dead, the fact that it was mentioned in Rush’s lecture indicates that consent over the uses of one’s dead body held some value in medical teaching in the late 18th century. No mention of the sixteen-year-old girl’s consent thus implies that most likely neither she nor her family consented to her body being dissected. The mention of “Mr. Jones” raises the possibility of the girl being enslaved. It is possible that the description “of Mr. Jones” indicates that she was held by a man named Jones. However, it is also possible that the designation “of” means that the body was procured from a man named Mr. Jones. Project genealogist, Scott Wilds identified a health officer named John Jones in the Philadelphia Directory. However, there is no evidence thus far that this John Jones had any connection to the university. The meaning “of Mr. Jones” is thus unclear, but it opens the possibility that the girl dissected in Rush’s lecture may have been enslaved. Overall, this entry from Poultney’s notebook indicates that the bodies of black people who may have been enslaved were dissected in at least one of Rush’s medical lectures at Penn, most likely without consent.


Rush most likely used the body of at least one black person who may have been enslaved in his teachings at Penn. Even if she was not enslaved, it can also be concluded that the body was not obtained with the consent of the deceased or her family. This speaks to who was vulnerable in 18th century Philadelphia society and whose family was not in a position to protect the body of a loved one—especially one so young. It can be concluded that Rush was teaching his students at Penn about a biological basis for race—specifically, that people of different races are differently susceptible to disease.

Yellow Fever

Poultney’s notebook also reveals what Rush was teaching his students about race in medicine. While there are few mentions of race in the notebook, there is one particularly significant entry on the yellow fever. In his lecture notes, Poultney writes that diseases are “confined to particular colours,” and that in a “years 62” yellow fever epidemic in South Carolina “there was not a negro known to be affected.”

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“in the Year 62 there was a Yellow fever Raged in the South Carolina when there wasn’t a Negro know to be affected.”

Excerpt from Samuel Poultney's notes.

It is a known fact that Rush, like many others in medicine at the time, believed that black people could not contract yellow fever and were thus more suited to caring for yellow fever patients. This led him to ask the Reverend Richard Allen to enlist the help of Philadelphia’s black community in the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic; within a few weeks, however, black Philadelphians began dying of the disease at similar rates to white Philadelphians, proving this theory of immunity to be incorrect.

Poultney’s notes reveal that Rush not only built his treatment protocol around this theory in 1793 but spread this idea to his students nearly a decade earlier. This also shows little change over time in Rush’s thinking about racial immunity to diseases. While it would have been enlightening to follow Poultney after the completion of his medical education with Rush, the fact of his death only three years after attending Rush’s lectures, unfortunately, makes this an impossibility.


The fact that even the eventual president of the Abolition Society once held an enslaved person for years, helped lay intellectual foundations for later race science at Penn, reiterated harmful ideas about black people, and benefitted from black people’s place in eighteenth-century Philadelphia by most likely dissecting the body of a girl whose family did not or could not consent shows the extent to which slavery and racism permeated Philadelphia and American society as a whole.

~ Brooke Krancer