Benjamin Rush’s Wild Ride

Erasmus Darwin was born on December 12, 1731, in Elston, of the United Kingdom. History books and biographies of the modern age remember him as a physician, a philosopher, a poet, and the grandfather of Charles Darwin. Unfortunately for Erasmus, though, being a grandfather was about his only remarkable skill.

Portrait of Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby (1792).jpg

FACT: Charles Darwin called his grandfather “ol’ pappy-jowls.”


Flash forward 14 years later. Benjmain Rush was born January 4, 1746, in Philadelphia County of British America. Now, if I’m writing about a man from Philadelphia born in the mid-1700s, you can guess what little tidbit of history he was involved in.


One of the signer’s of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush was a self-proclaimed civic leader, physician, politician, humanitarian, social-reformer, and (pause for dramatically long breath) educator. He served as the Surgeon General of the Continental Army, and was the founder of the Dickinson College, which remains a proud liberal arts college to this day. I did notice, however, that their mascot is the “Red Devil,” and I’m not sure how such a name could exist in 1940’s-80’s America. Anyway…


Rush was, as I said, a physician. Rather politely, his wikipedia page says this of his contributions to the medical world:


His approach prepared the way for later medical research, but Rush himself undertook none of it.”


That’s another way of saying that he had a lot of really, really bad ideas. For example, he was a proponent of blood letting and mercury chloride for the treatment of mental illness. Interestingly enough, he found that most patients were often too insane to be treated by the mercury.


That might lead you to assume that mercury probably doesn’t cure mental illness, but Rush would likely respond to that criticism with a healthy dose of thunderbolts.


“Thunderbolts? Now what are those?” you’re surely asking. Well, let’s take a quick detour. Remember Lewis and Clark, the famous tag-team adventure duo? Turns out that while they were doing all they’re exploring, and mapping, and… cataloguing fish (?), they had this neat past-time: Trading guns for sex with Native American women.


Naturally, that harmless rumpus led to frequent syphilis outbreaks among their crew. How do you treat that, you ask? Enter Benjamin Rush and his mixture of calomel, chlorine, jalap and mercury, which he called “Dr. Rush’s Thunderbolts.” Rush sent Lewis and Clark off with a big old batch of Thunderbolts before their trip, and is the reason most of that crew made it back without succumbing to syphilitic madness.

Image result for benjamin rush spinning

Pictured: Dr. Thunderbolts, Inventor of the Whoring Potion


You’re a busy person, though, and I get that. So when you ask me “why did I waste 20 seconds of my life learning about Erasmus Darwin,” I’m gonna’ cut to the chase.


The spinning chair.


Erasmus was a would-be physician for his time, and during his career he came up with a theory. Much like the rest of his skill set, it wasn’t a very good one. Erasmus posited that sleep was the almighty healer. Kind of true. His next conclusion was that spinning at extreme speeds was the best way to induce sleep. Intensely untrue. Large amounts of centripetal force basically cause the blood in your brain to vacation down in your lower body. Flash forward just a few years later to Benjamin Rush’s time, and you would assume that an educated man wouldn’t take Erasmus’ opinions seriously.


But that didn’t stop him from making the spinning chair.


Pictured below, the spinning chair was, well–  a suspended chair that flung you around so hard that you were either super dizzy, or very much not conscious. What Rush was after, though, was how sane you were after his wild ride.

Image result for benjamin rush spinning

Pictured: The torture device I didn’t know I was afraid of.


Rush applied a similar, yet altered theory to Darwin’s concept of “spinning the fuck out of them,” wherein the force of having the fuck spun out of you might make your brain less swollen with “vapors” or “liberalism.”


Mentally ill patients who were given over to Benjamin Rush’s Wild Ride were never cured of their ailments, but instead they just came out dizzy and crazy. That’s a lose-lose, if you ask me.


Fortunately, though, American medicine would progress over the next two hundred years, and we’d come up with even better ways to neglect and abuse the mentally ill.


Thank you for reading the first story! It’s a bit shorter than the content you can expect to find here every week, so stay tuned! New posts are available every Saturday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s