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Men Of Mind And Substance

July 2024
1min read
Except for its distance from the Old World’s courts and capitals, there was little that was provincial about Philadelphia in the second half of the eighteenth century. Although Franklin’s enormous reputation tended to overshadow the attainments of his fellow citizens, the city abounded in men of brilliant minds, some of them as highly regarded in Europe as they were in America. Benjamin Rush was the most prominent American physician of his day and the foremost teacher of medicine. Following his graduation from the University of Edinburgh and further training in London, he occupied the first chair in chemistry in the colonies, at the College of Philadelphia. A man of many parts, master of a clear literary style, and unafraid of the controversies he sparked by his original opinions, he promoted interest in such varied matters as psychiatry, abolition, prison reform, temperance, and female education. It was he who urged Thomas Paine to write Common Sense and suggested the title. And he proudly signed the Declaration of Independence.

One of his teachers, Dr. John Morgan, was another man of the world of science, a member of many distinguished foreign societies and a founder of the medical school in Philadelphia. With his wealthy companion Samuel Powel, Morgan made the grand tour of Europe in the grandest manner and had studied in Paris and Italy as well as in London and Edinburgh. He first defined the separate concerns of the physician, the surgeon, and the apothecary, a degree of specialization that was then considered revolutionary and that furthered his fame.

David Rittenhouse, one of Charles Willson Peale’s many subjects, was a self-taught instrument maker, astronomer, and mathematician whose genius shone as brightly as that of any of his formally educated contemporaries. His two celebrated orreries, ingenious prototypes of our modern planetariums, won him an enormous reputation. He made the first telescope in America, helped both Washington and Jefferson in their scientific problems, and acted as a one-man bureau of standards. Upon Franklin’s death, he became the American Philosophical Society’s president.

Joseph Priestley, “an eighteenth-century Bertrand Russell,” found refuge in Pennsylvania after a Birmingham mob, incensed by his liberal notions, burned his home and books. He first published the story of Franklin and his kite. He made fundamental contributions to education, theology, and chemistry, among them the “invention” of oxygen. To escape the banquets of Philadelphia, he retired to a quiet, productive life in Northumberland on the Susquehanna.


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