Benjamin Rush’s commonplace book practice pt.2

In part 1, we learned Dr. Benjamin Rush was a devoted keeper of the commonplace book. In his book Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father, author Stephen Fried details how Dr. Rush kept his commonplace books. In it we learn Rush’s mentor, Samuel Davies, didn’t discourage Rush from taking notes, despite the suspicion of the practice at that time:

Under Davies’s instruction, Rush came to love taking notes: while he read, while he listened, sometimes even while he talked, a pen and inkwell were always handy. Other teachers discouraged this practice, believing that memorandum books caused “the destruction of memories.” But Rush felt strongly that recording facts, and even rewriting entire passages, was a creative process; instead of “producing an oblivion” of facts, “it imprints them more deeply in the memory.” So while he studied the philosophy of John Locke, he did it using Locke’s own preferred format for note-taking and knowledge-gathering, the “common place book” (or memorandum book).

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father, by Stephen Fried, pg 25,26

Rush’s dedication to his commonplace book was relentless. At times, he’d rewrite entire commonplace books to make room for capturing new ideas. Rush was an intellectual bonfire!

Rush habitually wrote only on the right-hand of the page of his commonplace books, so he would always have room to reread and add additional ideas. And then when he filled many left-hand pages, he would sometimes rewrite the commonplace books all over again, leaving new blank pages.

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father, by Stephen Fried, pg 26

Rush was somewhat of a late bloomer in the medicine game. His commonplace book practice would help him catch up:

Between his formal education and his voracious reading, Rush had studied almost everything but science and medicine; now he was trying to learn everything from scratch. Besides taking in the principles of “modern medicine, he learned at Dr. Redman’s side how to compound treatments, how to perform bloodletting, cupping, and blistering, and how to deliver a baby. He also learned how to keep the accounting books for Redman’s huge practice. In all his other waking hours, Rush read the medical books he was discovering and the literature he loved. And he took voluminous notes on both in his commonplace books.

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father, by Stephen Fried, pg 33

These passages are further examples of the power of a commonplace book.


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