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Paying forward

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[Editor’s note: This is part of continuing series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

By Claire Gaudiani

In this month of graduations, it seems right to draw inspiration from the unique way American philanthropy has invested in human capital.

Consider Benjamin Rush, one of the less famous signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Rush was a physician, teacher, soldier, statesman, writer and philanthropist.

He also was a scholarship recipient.

Benjamin Franklin personally paid for Rush’s medical education in Europe, making Rush an early ‘scholarship boy made good.’

He really did make good, too.

Later on in his life, Rush became a professor of chemistry and then senior physician in the Medical College of Philadelphia.

He was also a famous and effective teacher and advocate for public health, condemning the use of alcohol and tobacco because of their negative health effects, and setting up clinics to provide health services for the poor, and providing his own services without charge.

In 1787, he supported with his own funds the first studies of mental illness and experiments to bring humane treatment to the mentally ill and to prisoners, despite the fact he was not a wealthy man.

He also became committed to the establishment of public schools to assure the education of all citizens.

And he took the idea of all citizens literally, reflecting a moderately modern understanding of investment in human capital.

He wrote essays condemning slavery and served as president of the Abolition Society started by Benjamin Franklin. He wanted blacks freed and educated, as well as women and girls.

His unusual views got significant practical action from him.

He worked, without success, to have his views on the importance of universal public education incorporated into the constitution of the state of Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Rush was not afraid to be ahead of his time in understanding the economic value of diverse investments in people, America’s human capital.


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.

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Other columns by Claire Gaudiani:

Helping hands [9.20.04]

Change agent [10.11.04]

Retailing generosity [10.25.04]

Prescription for change [11.22.04]

Whitewashing history [12.06.04]

Breakthrough philanthropy [12.20.04]

Critical thinking [01.03.05]

Tsunami lessons [01.17.05]

Making money [02.01.05]

Pension payoff [02.14.05]

Beyond the self [02.28.05]

Enlightened self-interest [03.14.05]

Taking chances [03.28.05]

Urban revolutionary [04.12.05]

Imaginative generosity [04.25.05]

Donor inspiration [05.09.05

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