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Benjamin Rush

Some of the best paternal advice of all times


Benjamin Rush and his wife wrote John, their son, some advice that has become memorable and universal.

The great Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) was one of the founding fathers of the United States and the first chemistry professor in the country. His contributions range from science —especially to the fields of medicine and chemistry— to his activism to abolish slavery and the capital punishment at a time when the “normal” rule was to support them. He also proposed a new educational model for women, in which science, history and philosophy where to be included.

In the anthology entitled Posterity, Letters of Great Americans to Their Children, which collects some of the best paternal letters of all times, a memorable letter by Rush and his wife to their 21 year old son, John, is included. The letter was written at a time when John had finished with Medical School and travelled to India to practice his skills there.

Their advice mainly focus on the art of acquiring knowledge through literature (always “carefully”), and the benefits of keeping a diary and taking notes of our thoughts, our conversations and everyday transactions so that it becomes a record for the future, in which people can read about the weather and the diseases and conditions that were present at the time of writing. Some of the advice most adequately transferable to our times is included in the list below:

1. Begin by studying Guthrie’s Geography.

2. Read your other books through carefully, and converse daily upon the subjects of your reading.

3. Keep a diary of every day’s studies, conversations, and transactions at sea and on shore. Let it be composed in a fair, legible hand. Insert in it an account of the population, manners, climate, diseases, &c., of the places you visit.

4. Preserve an account of every person’s name and disease whom you attend.

5. Be temperate in eating, more especially of animal food. Never taste distilled spirits of any kind, and drink fermented liquors very sparingly.

6. Avoid the night air in sickly situations. Let your dress be rather warmer than the weather would seem to require. Carefully avoid fatigue from all causes both of body and mind.

7. Take care of all your instruments, books, clothes, &c.

8. Be sober and vigilant. Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you.

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