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Benjamin Rush Quote on Medical Freedom

Benjamin Rush Quote on Medical Freedom

Did Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, actually say that if medical freedoms were not put into the Constitution, medicine could organize into an undercover dictatorship?

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Benjamin Rush Quote

We were asked to look into a popular quote by Dr. Rush from a reader who felt that some of the language didn’t fit into 18th or early 19th century vernacular. The words of Dr. Rush are often cited today by those promoting medical marijuana, and in the early 20th century were championed by homeopathic practitioners.

Let’s first take a look at the quote as it is shared today.

“Unless we put Medical Freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship…to restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of Medical Science. All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a Republic…. The Constitution of this Republic should make special privilege for Medical Freedom as well as Religious Freedom.” Benjamin Rush, MD

Indeed, the quote above can be found plastered all over the internet, from niche blogs to respectable websites. And, strangely, there is never a source given for the ubiquitous quote.

In short, we could not find a point of origin for the exact quote, although we did find what appears to be an early version in Rush’s writings from 1801. We feel this early text evolved into the modern version via embellishment, interpolation, and misattribution.

Below is our timeline of the quote.

Original Version

1801. Lecture VI, Benjamin Rush.

Dr. Rush in his introductory remarks to a course lecture at the University of Pennsylvania on November 3, 1801 delivered what he described as his 24 “causes which have retarded the progress of our science.” The 22nd cause contains what we believe to be the origin of the quote above. Rush said,

“Conferring exclusive privileges upon bodies of physicians, and forbidding men of equal talents and knowledge, under severe penalties from practicing medicine within certain districts of cities and countries. Such institutions, however sanctioned by ancient charters and names, are the bastiles of our science.”

rush quote

This quote is cited by a number of sources throughout the 19th century, such as Medical and Surgical Reporter, Volume 43.  Some later versions inaccurately used the word “inquisitions” instead of “institutions” in the final sentence.

You’ll note that the opening line is not a complete sentence, because it was given as part of a list. We believe that played at least some part in its evolution.

Below is a list of embellishments as the quote evolved over the years. The years and sources given below may or may not be the earliest citation, nor are they the only sources we found. We merely offer these as reference points in time, and not as a means to be all-inclusive, which would be far beyond the scope of this article.

Embellishment #1

1899. The Medical Visitor, Volume 15. In an essay entitled “Medical Legislation,” A.C. Cowperthwaite, M.D., read the following before the Homeopathic Medical Society of Chicago:

Dr. Benjamin Rush, – all honor to the memory of this great and good physician – took an advanced ground which his followers have failed to appreciate and follow, and in doing so he proved himself the great champion of medical liberty. He urged that the Constitution of the United States should not only provide for religious freedom but also for medical freedom.

He said, “Laws restricting the practice of the healing art to one class of physicians and denying to others equal privileges constitute the Bastiles of our science. Such laws are relics of despotism, vestiges of monarchy, hence wholly out of place in a republic.”

Cowperthwaite seems to have embellished Rush’s words by combining the two sentences of the original into a single opening sentence. He then moved Rush’s “ancient charters” idea into a new expanded closing line about “relics of despotism.”

Embellishment #2

A little over a decade later, some of Cowperthwaite’s words spoken in 1899 (which he spoke just prior to the Rush quote) were lumped into the actual quote and thus misattributed to Rush. Further embellishments added the “un-American” phrase to the closing.

1912. Journal of Zohophily, Volumes 21-25. The new version quote is cited as:

“The Constitution of this Republic should make special provision for medical as well as religious freedom. To restrict the art of healing to one class of men and deny equal privilege to others will constitute the Bastile of medical science. All such laws are un-American and despotic. They are fragments of monarchy, and have no place in a Republic.”

It also appears in this form in The California Eclectic Medical Journal, Volume 6 (1913).

That same year (1912) a slightly different version appeared in The Homœopathician.

1918. The Journal of the Kansas Medical Society, Volume 18. In a passage entitled “Medical Freedom” we see yet another variant, which appears to be paraphrased.

At a meeting of the Medical Freedom League of North Dakota, held in Fargo, June 11, 1918, a resolution was adopted for the definite incorporation of the principle of medical freedom in the states and in the constitution of the United States.

They claim that Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, declared that “Medical freedom is as importance (sic) as religious freedom and should be carefully guarded by the American people.”

1962. United States Congress House Committee on Interstate Foreign Commerce. The 1912 quote was still in use, with two minor words changed.

“The Constitution of this Republic should make special provision for medical as well as for religious freedom. To restrict the art of healing to one class of men and deny equal privilege to others will constitute the Bastile of medical science. All such laws are un-American and despotic. They are fragments of monarchy, and have no place in a Republic.”

Embellishment #3

By 1985, what is now the modern version of the quote can be found.

1985. The Lewiston Daily Sun. In the May 1, 1985 edition of The Lewiston Daily Sun, the quote can be found in a letter to the editor by Gloria Pillsbury, a citizen concerned about a local bill to license dietitians in the state of Maine. She closed her letter with the modern version of the quote (minus the final sentence). Her version cites the quote as:

“Unless we put Medical Freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship…to restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of Medical Science. All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a Republic.”

Dictionary.com states that the origin of the word “undercover” is from 1850-1855, decades after Benjamin Rush succumbed to typhus fever in 1813, and nowhere to be found in his writings. Thus, the first sentence of the quote uses words that were paraphrased into a more modern context.

Embellishment #3.1

Cowperthwaite’s misattributed line from the 1912 version has returned, but is now used as the closing sentence, completing the 200-year evolution of the quote:

“Unless we put Medical Freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship…to restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of Medical Science. All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a Republic…. The Constitution of this Republic should make special privilege for Medical Freedom as well as Religious Freedom.”

Thomas Szasz

In his refutation of the popular quote, Professor Thomas Szasz refers to it as “bogus” and boldly proclaims, “Rush never said any such thing and anyone familiar with the history of psychiatry ought to recognize that the quotation is an obvious fabrication.”

“This bogus quotation – without a scintilla of evidence to support it, and with a plethora of evidence against it – has become a “fact.” A search of the World Wide Web (Internet) with the search engine Google reveals dozens of entries to it. But not a single author supplies a verifiable source for it,” he concludes.

Evolution of a Quote

Below you can see the evolution of Rush’s original quote.

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Part 1:

1801. First Sentence from Benjamin Rush

Conferring exclusive privileges upon bodies of physicians, and forbidding men of equal talents and knowledge, under severe penalties from practicing medicine within certain districts of cities and countries.

1899. By now the quote combines the first and second sentences of the original into a single complete sentence (you’ll recall that the original was not a complete sentence).

Laws restricting the practice of the healing art to one class of physicians and denying to others equal privileges constitute the Bastiles of our science.

1912. Cowperthwaite’s lead-in words have now been misattributed and used as the opening line. A slightly re-worded 1899 intro has been pushed back to the second sentence.

The Constitution of this Republic should make special provision for medical as well as religious freedom. To restrict the art of healing to one class of men and deny equal privilege to others will constitute the Bastile of medical science.

1985. Removes the misattributed Cowperthwaite sentence and adds a new opening line about the “undercover dictatorship.” It then continues into a slightly modified second sentence.

Unless we put Medical Freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship… to restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of Medical Science.

Part 2:

1801. Rush’s second/closing sentence

Such institutions, however sanctioned by ancient charters and names, are the bastiles of our science.

1899. With the second sentence now incorporated into the first, a new closing has been added which seems to reference Rush’s “ancient charters” idea.

Such laws are relics of despotism, vestiges of monarchy, hence wholly out of place in a republic.

1912. Re-worded the 1899 version and adds the phrase “un-American.”

All such laws are un-American and despotic. They are fragments of monarchy, and have no place in a Republic.

1985. Condensed the 1912 closing by removing the reference to “fragments of monarchy.”

All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a Republic.

2000s. Cowperthwaite’s misattribution returns.

The final line of the modern version reads, “The Constitution of this Republic should make special privilege for Medical Freedom as well as Religious Freedom.” This brings back the original opening line of the 1912 version, which was actually spoken by Cowperthwaite in 1899 and later misattributed to Rush.

One more time.

Considering everything above, and to include the quote one last time, here is our annotated version:

Unless we put Medical Freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship (This line was added after 1962)to restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of Medical Science (a paraphrased version of the original Rush quote). All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a Republic….(Added in 1899, perhaps referencing Rush’s “ancient charters” line) The Constitution of this Republic should make special privilege for Medical Freedom as well as Religious Freedom. (Spoken by Cowperthwaite in 1899 and misattributed.)

Thus, only the green portion of the color-coded quote above can be attributed to Rush, and even that has been altered.

Conclusion

Benjamin Rush offered a quote in 1801 which has been embellished, expanded upon, and misattributed over the last 200 years. Some of his original thoughts can still be found in the modern version, although references to the Constitution or an undercover dictatorship were not part of his text.

The quote as circulated today and attributed to Benjamin Rush combines an interpolated intro, paraphrased middle, and misattributed closing.

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