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Meet the Doctor Who Convinced America to Sober Up

Meet Benjamin Rush, father of the temperance movement, signer of the Declaration of Independence

Benjamin Rush, prominent colonial physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote a treatise on alcohol in 1784 that still influences how medicine views substance abuse today. (W. S. Leney, 1814, after T. Sully/Wikimedia Commons)
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If you can believe it, Americans used to drink a lot more than they do today. Following the Revolution, Americans began drinking more due to the greater commercialization of grain. Emma Green at The Atlantic, explains:

Over the next four decades, Americans kept drinking steadily more, hitting a peak of 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person per year in 1830. By comparison, in 2013, Americans older than 14 each drank an average of 2.34 gallons of pure alcohol—an estimate, which measures how much ethanol people consumed, regardless of how strong or weak their drinks were.

And alcohol wasn't just consumed in bars, either. It was prescribed as part of treatment for some ailments, and in some places it was also safer and cleaner than many water sources. And along with it being a cure-all and a water replacement, the 19th century brought with it a lot of medical alcohol quackery.

Then a doctor named Benjamin Rush came along. Green explains that Rush, a devout Christian, was worried about the ways alcohol might threaten the newly formed America — a nation he cared deeply about, as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1784 Rush published a pamphlet entitled, An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body. In it he described how one might fall prey to the disease wrought by overconsumption of alcohol. Rush walks his reader through the different symptoms associated with consuming different types of alcohol and types of patients who might be susceptible. (Smithsonian.com's Megan Gambino took an in depth look at Rush's alcohol medical chart back in March.)

While he acknowledges a glass of beer or cider as healthy, Rush comes down hard on liquors like gin, brandy and rum:

“Since the introduction of spirituous liquors into such general use, physicians have remarked that a number of new diseases have appeared among us, and have described many new symptoms as common to old diseases…”

So what should the American consume, should he or she crave a little something? Opium, of course. Rush believed that opium was perhaps safer than “spirituous liquors,” as Brian Katchner pointed out in the American Journal of Public Health back in 1993. 

Rush didn’t want people to stop drinking entirely, but it’s clear that some of his writings may have inspired some to join the temperance movement later in the 19th century. Many historians argue that Rush's philosophy ultimately shaped how Western doctors treat alcoholism today. Rush was, according to Green, one of the first doctors to talk about alcoholism as a progressive disease, and one of the first people to suggest that in order to kick the habit, addicts should go away somewhere to sober up.  

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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