From Benjamin Rush
AL (incomplete): American Philosophical Society
[After Sept. 15, 17739]
I acknowledge myself much indebted to you for the Instruction contained in your last Letter. I have met with many Facts which confirm your Opinion of the Origin of Catarhs from Cloaths, Beds, Books &c. Baron Van Swieten in his last Volume of Commentaries on Dr. Boerhave’s Aphorisms1 in treating upon Epidemic Diseases mentions with Astonishment a Disorder which was peculiar only to the students and Bookseller of the University of Alstorp in Switzerland.2 May not the Origin of this be traced to the Library of the University from which all the Inhabitants of the town except the Bookseller were probably excluded? A Clergyman from Charlestown in South Carolina who had never heard of your Remark informed me lately that he had almost lost his wife by a severe Catarh which she caught by assisting him in moving his Library from One Room into Another.3 Instances of Catarh derived and propagated from Beds, Cloathes &c. might be mentioned without Number. But I can by no means think that Catarhs should be confined to these Causes. The Cases you have mentioned I grant a little invalidate the Arguments derived from the Operation of Cold in producing Catarhs, but I beg Leave to add that they do not appear conclusive. Dr. Gaubius in his Pathology4 speaks of certain remote Causes of Diseases which act only on what he calls the “predispositis.” Thus a few Glasses of Wine will bring on a Fitt of the Gout upon a Man who inherits a gouty Constitution, provided he drinks them at the usual seasons of that Disorder’s attacking him. The same Quantity of Wine will have no Effect upon a Man who is not predisposed, or subject to the Gout. We cannot say however from this that Wine is not One of the remote Causes of that Disorder. Putrid Diseases are brought on by Effluvia from putrefying Animal substances. The City of Edinburgh and many of the principal Cities in Spain are never free from these Effluvia and yet we do Not find they are more subject to putrid Diseases than Other Places. It will not do to say here that the Volatile salt which is constantly extricated from these foecal Matters acts as an antisceptic and prevents putrid Diseases. The same Salt is extricated from Other putrid Matters without producing any such Effect. These Facts however by no means call in Question the Truth of that general Proposition that putrid animal Effluvia generate putrid Diseases. The Operation of Cold and moisture requires a Predisposition in the Body to produce a Disorder in it. A man with weak Lungs seldom fails of having a Cough brought on, or aggravated by wetting his feet, sitting in a damp Room, riding or walking in the night Air. A man who has had the Sensibility of his Lungs encreased by previous warm weather, a warm Room, or by speaking or singing long, or with a loud voice will seldom fail of having a Cough or Defluxion brought on his Breast, if he exposes himself immediately After any of these, to a cold Air. Cold and moisture it may be said influence the Operation of those Matters which bring on Catarhs, and thus appear to act by themselves. But it cannot be so in the present Instances. Moreover in the Histories of all Epidemics, whether Plague, small pox, putrid fevers &c. we find the operation of Cold and moisture in the most sensible Manner upon the Body either in predisposing to, preventing or changing the Type of these Diseases. But I go further; we find several Diseases actually produced by Cold such as the Rheumatism, Angina, and Pleuresy.
After much and painful Enquiry into [remainder missing.]
9. Although the letter has been tentatively dated 1771 (PMHB, LXXVIII , 12), it was clearly in answer to BF to Rush above, July 14. Four ships sailed from England around July 21, and arrived in Philadelphia on and after Sept. 15 (London Chron., July 20–22; Pa. Gaz., September 15, 22). Hence Rush could not have had BF’s letter before mid-September.
1. Gerard van Swieten, The Commentaries upon the Aphorisms of Dr. Herman Boërhaave … Concerning the Knowledge and Cure of the Several Diseases Incident to Human Bodies … (11 vols., London, 1754–59). For Van Swieten see above, XVIII, 165 n; Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738) was an extremely influential medical teacher at Leyden, who originated the clinical method of instruction.
2. As far as we can discover there was no such place, let alone university; Rush may have had in mind the Latin school at Altdorf, in the canton of Uri.
3. The clergyman, we believe, was the Rev. William Tennent, the minister of the Independent Church in Charleston and a citizen of considerable prominence, who had married Susan Vergereau. See Newton B. Jones, “Writings of the Reverend William Tennent, 1740–1777,” S. C. Hist. Mag., LXI (1960), 129–45. Tennent, who had graduated from Princeton two years before Rush and must have known him there, sailed for Philadelphia in July: S.-C. Gaz., July 12, 1773. A few months earlier Rush had turned down an offer of a thousand guineas a year to settle in Charleston: Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush … (2 vols., [Princeton,] 1951), I, 77. Tennent may possibly have been attempting, after his wife’s experience, to get the Doctor to change his mind.
4. Hieronymus David Gaubius, Institutiones pathologiae medicinalis … (Leyden, 1758); for the author see above, XVIII, 165 n.