Greetings and salutations, fellow Mütter Museum fans, and welcome to the latest installment of Docent Discussions, our monthly series where we share insider accounts of the Museum as told by our docents. Past entries examined the Chevalier Jackson collection of swallowed objects and the connections between HPV (human papillomavirus) and a tumor secretly extracted from President Grover Cleveland.
Today’s entry comes from Julie Rakestraw, who is here to talk about The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Medicinal Plant Garden and its namesake: Benjamin Rush, a statesman, physician, and one of the founders of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Take it away, Julie!
My family has been visiting the Mütter Museum for years, and I was always fascinated by the people behind the artifacts. When I retired after 29+ years working at DuPont in 2019, I finally had the time to become more involved and to bring information about the displays to others. After shadowing and practicing, I completed my first tour on March 2 of this year, just before the pandemic was officially declared.
What is your favorite exhibit?
My favorite place in the Mütter Museum is the Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden. I love the tranquility of the garden during any season of the year. It’s fascinating to follow the plants through the seasons of spring awakening, summer bloom, fall leaf changing, and the winter outlines of bare branches and dormant perennials. During the Mischief at the Mütter event, the garden is transformed into an outdoor bar filled with people in spectacularly creative costumes. In her genealogy research, my mom has discovered that Benjamin Rush is actually a distant cousin of ours, which made me even more interested in his story.
A Brief History of Plants in Medicine
Native plants have been used for centuries to treat various maladies of both animals and people. A Sumerian clay slab from ~5000 years ago is the first written use of plants to treat conditions of the human body, describing 12 recipes for preparation of various products.
Native Americans noted that animals often sought out certain plants when they were ill, so they began to consume specific plants as well. The ancient Babylonians, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, and Romans were all herbalists, using the native plants for specific remedies. Before the establishment of universities in the 11th and 12th centuries, monasteries served as medical schools. In addition to copying ancient texts, the trainees tended the “physick” gardens which were designed to include specific plants which provided the medicines of the time. The chemicals of these naturally occurring medicines have been used to develop many pharmaceuticals of today, including digitalis, found in the leaves of the foxglove plant for the treatment of congestive heart failure.
A few examples of some common plants and the illnesses or conditions they can treat include:
- Cinchona: The bark contains quinine which is an effective treatment for malaria
- Foxglove: Digitalis extracted from the leaves is used to treat heart failure and cardiovascular disease. However, it can be toxic at higher doses.
- Ginger: A root used to ease nausea and motion sickness
- Mint: The leaves can be brewed into a tea which soothes digestion problems and can be made into a salve to reduce skin inflammation and itching. Mint has been used since at least the first century A.D. as recorded by Pliny in ancient Rome.
- Rhubarb: For treatment of diarrhea and other intestinal issues
- White willow bark: To treat insomnia, dysentery, and reduce fevers. The salicin found in the bark is converted to salicylic acid in the human body and is the inspiration for acetylsalicylic acid, also known as aspirin.
Tags in the Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden at the Mütter Museum display the names of the plants and some of their potential medical uses.
A Brief Look at Benjamin Rush
Rush was born outside Philadelphia in 1746. As the son of a blacksmith, his family was not wealthy, so he needed to make his own living. His brilliance was recognized early and he graduated from college at the age of 14. He apprenticed as a physician in Philadelphia and then went to the University of Edinburgh for medical school before returning to Philadelphia. Rush treated patients of all colors and social standing, as he needed to make a living. He became active in revolutionary politics, encouraging the publication of various pamphlets and writing his own. He signed the Declaration of Independence as a member of the Pennsylvania delegation in 1776. He was active in the field hospitals of the Continental Army and crossed the Delaware alongside George Washington in the famous Christmas Eve crossing in December 1776.
1783 portrait of Benjamin Rush by Charles Wilson Peale (Image Source: Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library)
During the Revolutionary War, he actively promoted improvements in the hospitals for the soldiers, as well as for better nutrition, short hair (to reduce lice), and changes to army plans such as not initiating marches during the early spring months when changeable weather was more likely to promote disease. Rush was a primary force behind inoculation of the Revolutionary War soldiers for smallpox, which had been a major cause of illness and death. Some of his treatments, like bloodletting, were later found to be useless or actually harmful and discontinued.
Before leaving the Army medical service, Rush issued a pamphlet which began “Fatal experience has taught the people of America the truth…that a greater proportion of men perish with sickness in all armies than fall by the sword.” Helping to change that ratio was a focus of his life’s work.
His family convinced him to focus on his career and not to marry until he reached the age of 30. His wife, Julia Stockton, was the daughter of the President of The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He first met Julia when he was a student at Princeton and she was just a young child. When the new couple moved into their house in Philadelphia, Rush arranged to have a library of books for his wife, encouraging her to pursue her own intellectual interests.
He believed in the concept of overall health, encompassing physical, mental, spiritual, economic, political in both the public and private spheres. This idea is not dissimilar from today’s concept of global health. Dr. Rush had the “peculiar happiness” of believing that as more became known about science and medicine, many of the cures and treatments of his time would be superseded. Rush opposed slavery, advocated free public schools, and sought improved education for women and a more enlightened penal system. However, he believed that male and female students should be educated separately and felt that the education of women should focus on poetry, religious writings and avoid science and mathematics.
Rush was interested in mental health as well as physical health and published “Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind” in 1812. Some of his early thoughts in this area have been disproved as well, including his beliefs that many mental illnesses resulted from sensory overload and could be treated by devices like a centrifugal spinning board or a special restraining chair with a sensory deprivation helmet. However, he also promoted therapeutic treatment for alcohol addiction and improvements in the hospitalization conditions for the mentally ill.
After the Revolutionary War, Rush helped create The College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1787. He encouraged College Fellows to maintain a medicinal garden as a natural and cooperative way to replenish their medicine chests. He trained over 3000 apprentice medical students.
The College established the Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden adjacent to the Mütter Museum in 1937. The garden contains more than 60 different kinds of herbs that have historical and sometimes contemporary medicinal value.
Thanks for your insights, Julie! If you want to know more about the Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden, including upcoming events and the full list of plants currently in the Garden, check out the Garden’s homepage. If you want to read more about Benjamin Rush, we recommend our recent article on his correspondence with African American physician James Durham.
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The Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
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