Last year, Dickinson launched a new health-studies certificate program, enabling our students to explore the functioning of health systems in 21st-century society. The conversations that led to the initiative’s creation allowed us to give full expression to the ways in which a liberal-arts perspective informs complex societal issues that cut across a range of disciplines.
The debate about health-care delivery in our nation and around the world now connects virtually every aspect of society—economic, political, scientific and humanitarian, making a concentrated focus in health studies an ideal vehicle with which to advance the notion of a “useful” liberal-arts education. On the following pages of this issue of Dickinson Magazine, you’ll read how our alumni, faculty, staff and students are contributing to the timely, complex and critical debate on health-care reform.
As always, our founder Dr. Benjamin Rush served as inspiration for and precursor to our new health-studies initiative. Trained as a physician at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Rush brought his unique perspective to his conception of an American liberal-arts education. Rush believed the sciences should occupy a central position in Dickinson’s curriculum. Not only did he recognize the fact that science—and particularly chemistry—would generate the new knowledge that would profoundly alter the future, but he also viewed science as a “connector” of ideas, concepts and action.
It is, perhaps, in Rush’s personal life where we find the greatest manifestation of the intersection of his liberal-arts perspective and his work as a practicing physician. Rush shared with his fellow Founding Fathers a passionate commitment to improve the quality of life for all human beings through concrete action. Thus we find him remaining behind in Philadelphia to treat those afflicted during the yellow-fever epidemic of 1793. Appalled by conditions for mental patients in the Pennsylvania Hospital, he successfully campaigned for the state to build a separate mental ward where patients would be kept in more humane conditions.
Rush was equally passionate about seeking new remedies for his patients. Always ahead of his time, Rush aggressively sought new explanations and treatments. As with so many pioneering scientists, many of his ideas—such as bloodletting and his theory that mental illness was caused by a disruption of blood circulation—have long since been proven ineffective or even dangerous. But scientific progress is not always linear.
More important was Rush’s willingness to think expansively and creatively and to forge new ground by pushing unorthodox ideas. It was, for example, Rush’s inquiries into mental illness that led to the publication in 1812 of the first textbook on “diseases of the mind,” earning him the sobriquet the Father of American Psychiatry. And it was Rush who first identified alcoholism as a physical addiction that should be treated medically rather than as a sinful condition that was a matter of individual choice.
It is, therefore, in Rush’s imaginative and unconventional thinking that we see a liberally educated mind at work, a mind that seeks causal connections between societal events, personal behavior and scientific reasoning. Unafraid to push the boundaries of knowledge—even if in the wrong direction—and committed to improving the lot of those less fortunate, Rush’s legacy is one worthy of emulation and respect.
Rush had a profound effect on the development of health care in his own day—an impact that was multiplied many times over by the 3,000 medical students he educated in his lifetime. It is, of course, our hope that our students who pursue a health-studies certificate will bring the same humanitarian commitment and hunger for advancement that motivated Dr. Rush. By fully understanding the contributions a “useful” liberal-arts education can make to the issue of health-care delivery in the 21st century, we are confident our students will go on to make important inroads into one of society’s most vexing and complex challenges.