Dorothea Lynde Dix Biography (1802-1887)

social reformer

Dorothea Dix is known for her pioneering work in the field of mental health.Horrified at the abusive conditions in which the mentally ill were kept, Dixcampaigned to have hospitals built to treat the mentally ill.

Born on April 4, 1802, Dix was the only daughter of Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow Dix. The Dix family, which included Dorothea's two younger brothers, was very poor, and Dorothea was often sent to Boston to live with her grandparents. At age 14, Dix took a job as a teacher in Worcester, Massachusetts. At age19, Dix founded a school for young ladies in Boston. Unfortunately, Dix suffered from tuberculosis, and by 1927, her health become perilous. She was forced to stop teaching, and spent a good deal of time during her recuperation writing. She had a number of works published, including a science textbook called Conversations on Common Things (1824); Ten Short Stories for Children (1827); Meditations for Private Hours (1828); The Garlandof Flora (1829); and The Pearl or Affection's Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present (1829).

In 1830, believing herself to be fully recovered, Dix resumed teaching, at the same time caring for her ill grandmother. Over the next five years, she worked a grueling schedule as a teacher and a nurse to her grandmother, culminating in a severe relapse of her lung disease. Over the course of the next 18 months, Dix again tried to rest and recuperate, this time at the home of a friend in London.

While in England, Dix read of the French doctor Philippe Pinel, who had worked towards prison reform at the end of the 1700s. Dix also studied about the Englishman William Tuke, who had opened a sanitorium for mentally ill called the Retreat at York. The activism of Pinel and Tuke served as a template for Dix, and she returned to the United States in 1837, committed to examining howthe mentally ill were being treated. As it turned out, her health was stillnot sufficiently strong enough for this undertaking, and her recovery took until 1841. During this time, her grandmother died, leaving Dix an inheritancewhich relieved her of the need to continue teaching in order to support herself.

Finally, in 1841, Dix paid a visit to an East Cambridge, Massachusetts, jail,where she intended to teach Sunday school. She inquired as to where the mentally ill (then referred to as the "insane") were kept, and she was escorted into a horrifying underground chamber, where mentally ill women were housed infrigid, filthy conditions.

Dix was ignited by what she saw. She began to lobby various community leaders, imploring them to join her in her mission to improve conditions for the mentally ill. Three famous activists joined her cause: Horace Mann, the famous educator; Charles Sumner, the abolitionist; and Samuel Gridley Howe, head of the Perkins Institute for the blind. These three were colloquially referred toas the "three horsemen of reform" in Massachusetts. Dix spent the next 18 months visiting various Massachusetts poorhouses and prisons, and documenting the circumstances in which she found the mentally ill. Over and over again, Dix was horrified to find these poor unfortunates caged, chained, bound, inadequately fed, abused, and tortured by the very people who should have been their protectors, but who had instead become their captors. With the help of Mann, Howe, and Greely, Dix was able to secure legislation and funding to appropriately house and care for the mentally ill at Worcester State Hospital.

Dix then reached out beyond Massachusetts, again investigating and documenting the conditions in which the mentally ill were housed in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Over time, Dix wassuccessful in most of these states, and new state hospitals for the mentallyill were established in Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Her successes in these states sent her further afoot to states in the Midwest and South, and to parts of eastern Canada. Dix had a variety of successes in these locations, but failed at getting federal legislation passed to set aside moneyto support the mentally ill, blind, deaf, and mute nationwide.

Unable to gain support for this federal fund, in 1854 Dix turned her attention to Scotland and England, where she was able to convince both Queen Victoriaand then Parliament of the need to improve the asylums in Scotland. Dix traveled the European continent in 1855, visiting France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Germany. Her strong, persuasive convictions, coupled with her talent for dramatically conveyingthe horror of the plight of the mentally ill, won support for her cause at many stops.

In 1861, Dix undertook a new cause, and accepted an appointment to superintendent of U.S. Army nurses. This put Dix into the position of training the women who would serve as nurses during the Civil War. Dix's tenure in this role was somewhat controversial. She (as always) felt very strongly about how thistraining should be undertaken, and by whom. This cost her a good deal of criticism, among other reasons because Dix made a mandatory rule that she would only accept middle-aged, homely women into the program. Still, her tireless commitment also won her praise and awards.

After the Civil War, Dix returned to championing the cause of the mentally ill. She continued to travel the United States, investigating and documenting,lobbying and persuading. She even met with an official from Japan about conditions for the mentally ill in his country, and was successful in encouragingJapan to build a hospital in 1875.

In 1881, Dorothea Dix was 79 years old. She set out on her last tour of New England and New York, ultimately retiring to Trenton, New Jersey. Here she lived on the grounds of the New Jersey State Hospital, the very first hospital for which she had lobbied, until her death on July 17, 1887.

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