The award honored Benjamin Rush, whose theories are at the root of the structural racism in psychiatry that the organization now admits.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) no longer lists a Benjamin Rush Award among the awards it confers on member psychiatrists. The Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) had repeatedly called on the organization to disavow Dr. Benjamin Rush, the slave-owning “father of American psychiatry,” who is responsible for the “scientific racism” at the very root of the structural racism in psychiatry that the APA now says it regrets.
In 2021, more than 175 years after its founding, the APA issued a public apology for psychiatry’s “role in perpetrating structural racism” and said it hoped to make amends. However, the APA website continued to list the Benjamin Rush Award among the awards presented at its annual meetings.
The man in whose honor this APA award was bestowed bought a child slave, William Grubber, in the early- to mid-1770s, scholars believe, at roughly the same time he published his 1773 critique of slavery. While he promoted the gradual abolition of slaves, he kept his own slave for some two decades, apparently unconcerned with his hypocrisy.
Rush finally released Grubber from slavery in 1794, only after receiving, in his words, “a just compensation for my having paid for him the full price of a slave for life.” In other words, Rush made sure he got his money’s worth from his slave before setting him free.
However, Rush’s transgressions go far beyond the human rights abuse of enslaving another human being.
In 1792, Rush declared that Blacks suffered from a disease he called “negritude” that he theorized was caused by a variant of leprosy. “Observations intended to favour a supposition that the Black Color (as it is called) of the Negroes is derived from the Leprosy,” he wrote. The cure was scrubbing the skin with corrosive acid to turn it white.
Further, he believed Blacks should not intermarry with other races because this supposed disease could infect their children. Thus, with this view of “black leprosy,” Rush set the precedent for later psychiatric and psychological theories of “scientific racism” which perpetuated racism up to present day by purporting to have found biological proof that justified segregation and other discriminatory practices against African Americans.
“Observations intended to favour a supposition that the Black Color (as it is called) of the Negroes is derived from the Leprosy.”
– Dr. Benjamin Rush, “Father of American psychiatry”
Rush set yet another racist precedent by considering that African Americans were able to easily endure surgical operations and pain, labeling this “pathological insensibility.” More than 200 years later, physicians are still more likely to underestimate the pain of Black patients relative to nonblack patients and are less likely to prescribe African Americans appropriate pain medication.
America’s first psychiatrist’s human rights abuses included treating his patients with darkness, solitary confinement, and a special technique of forcing the patient to stand erect for two to three days at a time, poking them with sharp pointed nails to keep them from sleeping – a technique borrowed from a British procedure for taming horses. He also invented the “tranquilizer” chair, into which the patient was strapped hand and foot, along with a device to hold the head immobile.
The legacy of the “father of American psychiatry” is forever debased by his documented human rights abuses and his role in creating the “scientific racism” that has been used for generations by psychiatrists, psychologists, and the mental health practitioners trained by them – racism which permeated American society and which the APA now admits is still “ingrained in the structure of psychiatric practice and continue[s] to harm BIPOC psychological well-being even today.”