Dr. Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush's tranquillizing chair

Photo credit: University Archives

The “tranquillizing chair” at right may look fearsome, but it was actually created by Dr. Benjamin Rush as a more humane alternative to the straightjacket. Rush, widely considered to be the “father of American psychiatry,” held the chairs of “Institutes, Medical and Clinical Practice” at Penn in the late 18th century and, in 1796, received the additional professorship of “the Practice of Physic.” His ideas were truly ahead of his time—he was one of the few to recognize that mental illness could be diagnosed, classified and treated, rather than being the result of a “possession” of demons. He also was instrumental in upgrading patient conditions, and advocated occupational therapy, encouraging patients to sew, garden, listen to music or exercise. He also set up the Philadelphia Dispensary to provide medical care for the poor, the first such institution in the country.

Rush was also a renowned revolutionary. He was appointed a member of the Second Continental Congress, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence—the only signer to have a medical degree. Throughout his life, Rush remained committed to education, helping to found Dickinson College in 1783, Franklin College (now Franklin and Marshall) four years later and the College of Physicians in 1787.

For more on this and other notable moments in Penn history, go to the University Archives web site at www.archives.upenn.edu.

Originally published on September 20, 2007