Historical Figures in Addiction Treatment: Benjamin Rush

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Lindsey Blakley
May 10, 2021

Born on January 4, 1746, Benjamin Rush is remembered for accomplishments in a number of different fields. He is primarily remembered today as one of the Founding Fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was a doctor, prolific writer, and social activist with a controversial reputation. 

He often fought for the working class and those who were seen as suffering from moral depravity. He was even one of the first activists fighting to abolish slavery. 

Rush was an educated man that worked hard throughout his life to help his fellow citizens. Whether it be medically, socially, and even politically, he will always be remembered for his revolutionary ideas on alcoholism and the treatment for those suffering from the disease. 

It All Started in Childhood

Benjamin Rush grew up with a father who favored drinking. Today, his father would be considered an alcoholic, but during this time, no such word had been created. Rush eventually saw the stress his dad’s drinking put on his marriage with Benjamin’s mother. It wasn’t long before his parents filed for divorce. At the age of five or six, his father died from what Benjamin was convinced was his drinking problem.

Benjamin’s mother married again. This time, she married a distiller. This marriage didn’t turn out to be much better for Benjamin or his mother as he saw his stepfather abuse her. 

Some believe it was Benjamin Rush’s humble beginnings that led him down the path that would revolutionize the way the world now sees alcohol. That his experiences of seeing first-hand what alcoholism can do to people and their families. Others say it was because he was a devout Christian and drinking spirits was a sin. 

A Founding Father Fighting Addiction

As one of the Founding Fathers, he was worried about the future of the newly free nation, one that seemed dependent on alcohol. He said, “A nation corrupted by alcohol can never be free.”

Maybe it was a combination of all three, but Benjamin Rush did all he could throughout his lifetime to inform his nation of the dangers of alcohol. Mind you; this was a good 100 full years before anyone backed him up with proof. Needless to say, he had his work cut out for him. 

How Benjamin Rush Paved the Way For Alcoholics Anonymous

Benjamin Rush was the first American medical professional to write on alcoholism and suggest it might be a disease. This was 100 years before the concept of alcoholism was developed in the 1870s. All of his hard work seemed to fall on deaf ears, though. From 1792 to 1810, alcohol consumption doubled per capita, and by 1830 it had tripled. This forty-year period was later deemed to be the period of the highest alcohol consumption in American history. 

By this point, more Americans were willing to accept the concept that alcoholism could be a disease and thus were more willing to abstain from drinking it altogether. Still, it was a long road to get here and took another 40 years before any real help or treatment was set in place for those suffering from the disease. 

Throughout this period, Benjamin Rush did all he could to convince the nation of the consequences associated with alcohol consumption. He released three written works dedicated to different problems associated with alcohol consumption.

His Written Work on Addiction

By far, his most popular work was his pamphlet titled, “An Enquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors Upon the Human Body and Their Influence Upon the Happiness of Society.” The pamphlet was reprinted by the thousands and still stands as the earliest influential piece of writing on alcoholism. 

He was the first to suggest that alcoholism was a chronic illness, one that got progressively worse as the person became progressively addicted to the drink — saying that the person would become chronically ill and eventually be destroyed by the disease. He was also the first to suggest that alcoholism has a genetic component and can be passed down generationally within families. 

Benjamin’s New Ideas in Addiction Treatment

Some other firsts he established within the AA community include: 

  • Suggesting that the only true cure to the disease is for those diseased to abstain from the use of alcohol for the entirety of their life
  • Essentially invented Aversion Therapy 156 years before Dr. Walter Voegtlin by inducing vomiting through his own emetic-alcohol mixture
  • He even invented Occupational Therapy before it was recognized as a legitimate therapy by assigning his clients to daily tasks to help them stay busy and thus recuperate faster

People have said many things about Benjamin Rush over the years, but one thing they cannot say is that he didn’t care for the people of his country. Rush took his positions in society very seriously and was always working to incorporate what he saw as the best methods for the betterment of the nation, specifically those dealing with alcoholism. Many of his greatest achievements – like those listed above – weren’t even documented as his original achievements because he practiced them centuries before AA was even established. Still, Benjamin Rush will be forever remembered in the AA community. 

Lindsey is a full-time copywriter, editor, and mother with a passion for all things related to mental wellness and personal growth. In her spare time, she likes to write short stories and e-books.

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