​Dorothea Dix – Notable Women in History Series

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, on April 4, 1802. She had a difficult child as the daughter of a mother who suffered frequent bouts of depression and an alcoholic father. Despite this adversity, she took charge as the primary caretaker of her younger brothers. Then at the age of 12, she left home to live and study at the home of her affluent grandmother.
With her grandmother encouraging her interest in education, and limited career opportunities for women at the time, Dix went on to establish a number of schools in Boston and Worcester. She designed her own curriculum and administered classrooms both as a teenager and a young woman. In the 1820’s, her poor health caused her to be increasingly absent from the schools and by 1836 she closed her last school indefinitely.
Not one to waste time, Dix wrote during her periods of illness, when she was unable to work. In 1824, she published a small book of facts meant for schoolteachers that proved extremely popular. By the time of the Civil War Conversations on Common Things; or, Guide to Knowledge: With Questions had been reprinted 60 times. The book was directed at young female teachers, in the style of a conversation between a mother and daughter. The book strongly reflected Dix’s belied that women and men should be educated equally. She continued to publish a variety of works throughout her life, and due to her grandmother’s wealth and notoriety, often mingled with influential thinkers of the time such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Upon the closure of her last school, Dix took a holiday in England to convalesce, during which she time she met notable prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, and Samuel Tuke, founder of the York Retreat for the mentally ill. This experience created within her a great interest in the treatment of the mentally insane, and upon her return home she dedicated herself to improving their living conditions.
She started by volunteering to teach Sunday school classes to female convicts in East Cambridge Jail. During her visits she saw prisoners living in the most inhumane conditions, nearly identical to those at the “mental health” facilities she had toured throughout North America and Europe. She found mentally ill people in the same facilities as criminals, chained in dark enclosed spaces, lying in their own filth, often without adequate clothing, and abused both physically and sexually. These atrocities prompted her to take swift action.
Her first action was to present her documented findings of the conditions she observed at these institutions at the legislature of Massachusetts. She demanded officials take reformative action; her reports were so shocking and disturbing that a movement to improve conditions for the imprisoned and insane was quickly galvanized. Dix went on to accomplish similar movements Rhode Island, New York, through the country and even into Europe.
However, Dix’s life took a slight turn, with the outbreak of the Civil War. A week after it began, she headed to Washington, where she was quickly appointed to organize and outfit the Union Army Hospitals, and oversee the vast nursing staff the war would require. As superintendent of women nurses, she was the first woman to serve in such a high capacity in a federally appointed role. Though she was adept at her job, she wasn’t particularly well-liked by her colleagues and was eventually ousted from her position in 1863 and sent home.
After the war, Dix resumed her work as a social reformer. She traveled throughout Europe and continue to write and offer guidance to what was now a widespread movement to reform the treatment of the mentally ill. Hospitals old and new were reconstructed or built according to her specifications and ideals.
After serving a long life as an author, nurse, and reformer, Dorothea Dix died at the age of 85 in 1887, in a New Jersey hospital that had been established in her honor. This women’s history month, we remember Dorothea Dix for her contributions to the improved treatment of the mentally ill and the imprisoned.