Museum Moment: Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Sermons to Gentlemen upon Temperance and Exercise

Dec 23, 2010

By Michael Trostel

Is golf “a good walk spoiled” or is it simply a good walk?

A recent study by the Rose Center for Health and Sport Science in Denver, Colo., estimates that golfers who walk the course log an average of five-to-six miles per round and burn more than 1,200 calories when they carry their clubs. The game has also been part of the White House’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, which encourages a healthier and more active generation of children.

But this is hardly the first time that the game’s health benefits have been extolled.

In 1772, Philadelphia printer John Dunlap produced Sermons to Gentlemen upon Temperance and Exercise, which included a passage pertaining to golf. This reference constitutes the first known mention of the game in an American publication.

As the printer, Dunlap’s name is the only one that appears on the front of the 42-page booklet, which implores the reader to be more health conscious. Through the research of contemporary records, the anonymous author of Sermons was discovered to be Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father of the United States and signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

The booklet includes chapters on “Temperance and Eating,” “Use and Abuse of Wine and Strong Drink,” and “Exercise.” It is under this last heading that Rush includes a discourse on the benefits of walking, running and swimming. He follows with a brief list of other recommendations for better health:

“Skeating, Jumping, also, the active plays of Tennis, Bowles, Quoits, Golf.”

A footnote is added to elaborate on golf, a game that was well-known to Rush from his time studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but was relatively unfamiliar to most Americans at the time.

“Golf is an exercise which is much used by the Gentlemen in Scotland. A large common in which there are several little holes is chosen for the purpose. It is played with little leather balls stuffed with feathers; and sticks made somewhat in the form of a bandy-wicket. He who puts a ball into a given number of holes, with the fewest strokes, gets the game. The late Dr. McKenzie, Author of the essay on Health and Long Life, used to say, that a man would live ten years the longer for using this exercise once or twice a week.”

In addition to being a physician who frequently wrote on mental health and exercise, Rush represented Pennsylvania at the Continental Congress and had a wide influence on the development of the American government as an early opponent of slavery and capital punishment. At age 15, he completed a five-year program that earned him a bachelor’s degree at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). After several years studying medicine in Scotland, Rush returned to the United States and became a professor of medical theory and clinical practice at the College (now University) of Pennsylvania. He was far ahead of his time in the treatment of mental illness and was considered the "Father of American Psychiatry," publishing the first textbook on the subject in the United States.

In 1803, at the request of Thomas Jefferson, Rush met with Meriwether Lewis to help with preparations for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Rush taught Lewis about frontier illnesses and provided the duo with a medical kit for their journey. Later, Rush helped reconcile the estrangement of Jefferson and John Adams by encouraging the two former Presidents to resume their correspondence.

While it is unclear if Rush was a pioneer of golf in America, he and some of his fellow signatories of the Declaration of Independence were familiar with the Scottish pastime. James Wilson, another member of the Pennsylvania delegation, wrote several letters to a former professor in Scotland discussing the game’s virtues.

While golf would not become permanently established in the United States until the 1880s, it is clear through Rush’s Sermons that the game had taken root in America more than a century before that.

Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. Contact him with questions or comments at mtrostel@usga.org.

(USGA Museum)