Dix, Dorothea Lynde

views updated May 23 2018


Dorothea Lynde Dix was a remarkably fore-sighted educator and social reformer who made major contributions to the welfare of persons with mental illness, prisoners, and injured Civil War soldiers. Dix was born on April 4, 1802, in Hampden, Maine. Her father, Joseph Dix, was an alcoholic and circuit-riding Methodist preacher who required young Dorothea to spend her time laboriously stitching and pasting the thick religious tracts he wrote and sold during his travels. Although considered a strict and sometimes abusive father, Joseph Dix taught his daughter to read and write at an early age. Dix, in turn, taught reading and writing to her two younger brothers. Her mother, Mary (Bigelow) Dix, suffered from depression that made it difficult for her to care for her three children.

At age 12, Dix lived briefly with her father's mother in Boston and then moved in with an aunt in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although her grandmother helped with her education, Dix

had little formal training. Gifted with strong beliefs and intellectual abilities, Dix, at age 14, began teaching young girls a rigorous curriculum that she had created with emphasis on the natural sciences and ethical responsibilities. In 1821, Dix moved back to Boston and opened a private school on property belonging to her grandmother.

Dix combined teaching with a prolific schedule of writing books and religious tracts, including Meditations for Private Hours (1828), The Garland of Flora (1829), and American Moral Tales for Young Persons (1832). One of her best known and most-often reprinted publications was Conversations on Common Things, which was published in 1824 as a guide to help parents answer everyday questions, such as "Why do we call this day Monday?" and "What is tin?"

"Man is not made better by being degraded;he is seldom restrained from crime by harsh measures, except the principle of fear predominates in his character;and then he is never made radically better for its influence."
—Dorothea Dix

After her father's death in 1821, Dix used her income to support her mother and her two younger brothers who had come to live with her in Boston. In addition to the private school she ran, Dix also conducted free evening classes for indigent children. She read prodigiously, continued to study the natural sciences as well as history and literature, attended public lectures, and met the leading members of Boston's intellectual and religious communities. She made the acquaintance of many Unitarians and became friends with William Ellery Channing, the famed pastor of Unitarian Federal Street Church in Boston and his wife Julia Allen Channing.

Never robust, Dix suffered intermittently from depression and chronic upper respiratory infections variously attributed to tuberculosis and malaria. Her illnesses would flare up from time to time, exacerbated by the demanding schedule she kept and she developed a pattern of cutting back briefly on her work until she was able to resume her tasks. In 1836, Dix broke down while trying to care for her ill grandmother in addition to all her other duties and it became clear that she would need to take an extended period of rest.

She closed her school and sailed to Europe where she stayed in Liverpool, England, with William Rathbone and his wife who were friends of the Channings. Rathbone was a prominent humanitarian and philanthropist who introduced Dix to a number of social welfare advocates including prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and William Tuke, a Quaker who had opened the York Retreat for the Mentally Disordered and who pioneered the theory of humane treatment for persons with mental illness.

While Dix was in England, both her mother and her grandmother died, the latter leaving Dix a large inheritance. The income from the inheritance and royalties from her books were sufficient to give Dix a comfortable living for the rest of her life. Dix returned to Boston in 1838 and spent several years visiting friends and family members and traveling to various points of interest.

In 1841, a ministerial student asked Dix to teach a Sunday school class to a group of women incarcerated in the East Cambridge Jail in Massachusetts. Her first visit to the jail marked a turning point in her life. After teaching the class, Dix toured the jail. On the lower level she found the "dungeon cells" that housed inmates considered to be insane. Dix was horrified to find men, women, and children, half-naked and underfed, chained to walls, and forced to sleep on the floors of the filthy unlit cells.

Dix immediately took action. She surveyed every jail, poorhouse, and prison in Massachusetts. In 1843, she delivered a report to the Massachusetts state legislature. Legislators and others at first criticized the report and denied the charges. When Dix's charges were sustained by independent observations, the legislature allocated funds to expand the State Mental Hospital at Worcester.

Dix continued her investigations in other states, first in New England and eventually nationwide. Dix traveled the country systematically collecting data that she would then present in reports (called "memorials") to various state legislatures. Seeking the establishment of state-supported institutions, Dix would lobby state officials and influential persons and attempt to raise a public outcry over the dreadful conditions she had found.

Until Dix began her campaign to better the lives of persons with mental illness, the popular assumption was that persons who were insane were incurable and did not feel deprivation in the same way as ordinary persons. Dix was among the first to espouse the theory that insanity was treatable and that better living conditions could do much to help persons with mental illness.

In three years, the indefatigable Dix traveled over 30,000 miles crusading for her cause. Her labors proved highly successful. In 1843, when she delivered her first memorial, there were 13 mental institutions in the United States. Several decades later, that number had grown to 123 with Dix helping to found 32 of them. In addition, Dix's efforts played a major part in the founding of 15 schools for what were then called the "feeble-minded," a school for blind persons, and a number of training schools for nurses.

Buoyed by her success, Dix next set out to accomplish her goal of persuading Congress to set aside five million acres in federal land grants; the idea was that income from the land trusts would be used to endow state mental hospitals. In 1854, Congress passed the legislation she sought. Although President millard fillmore favored the bill, it did not reach his desk before the end of his term. The bill was vetoed by Fill-more's successor, President franklin pierce, thus dashing the hopes of Dix and her supporters of establishing federal funding for mentally ill persons. Eventually, in 1855, Congress provided funds for the founding of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., which remains the oldest large mental hospital that is federally funded.

Worn out and discouraged, Dix traveled to Europe to rest. Instead, she found herself investigating the same deplorable conditions in prisons and poorhouses in numerous European countries and once again began campaigning for, and achieving, many reforms. Throughout the 1850s, Dix worked for humanitarian reform in the United States and Europe as well in Canada, Russia, and Japan.

In 1845, Dix published a treatise entitled Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States, in which she advocated for progressive reforms for ordinary prisoners including the separation of prisoners according to the type of offense committed and the need for education of prisoners.

In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, the 59-year-old Dix volunteered her services and was made superintendent of women nurses for the Union Army. Although she worked until 1866 helping to organize women volunteers, establish hospitals, and raise funds, her capabilities as an administrator were questioned and her tenure was viewed as only partially successful.

Dix resumed her work with persons with mental illness in 1867. She found many problems including rising immigration rates, state treasuries depleted by the war, a growing population of indigent persons with mental illness, and state legislatures that had new priorities. She continued her fight until ill health forced her to stop. In 1881, Dix took up residence in the guest quarters of the Trenton, New Jersey, state hospital she had helped found. She lived there until her death on July 17, 1887.

further readings

Brown, Thomas J. 1998. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Dix, Dorothea. 1999. Asylum, Prison, and Poorhouse: The Writings and Reform Work of Dorothea Dix in Illinois. Edited by David L. Lightner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

——. 1845. Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States. Edited by Leonard D. Savitz. Reprint, Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1984.

Dix, Dorothea Lynde (1802-1887)

views updated May 11 2018

Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887)



Youth. Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in 1802 in Hampden, Maine, into the impoverished family of a lay Methodist preacher. Her father, an alcoholic, exercised severe discipline, and the family moved constantly from place to place. Her childhood was so unhappy that in later life she never mentioned her parents and sometimes claimed that she had been orphaned. At the age of thirteen she left her parents and divided her time between a wealthy grandmother in Boston and a family of cousins in Worcester, Massachusetts. Governed by a strong sense of independence and of duty, she began teaching school at age fifteen. At sixteen she took responsibility for both of her younger brothers.

Education. Dix educated herself. An uncle arranged for her to have borrowing privileges at the Boston Athenaeum, and she soon cultivated a particular interest in the natural sciences. She corresponded regularly with Benjamin Silliman for thirty years. In 1824 she published what was in effect a childrens scientific encyclopedia. Conversations on Common Things, With Questions met with great success, going through sixty editions by the beginning of the Civil War.

Religious Influences. Religion played a significant role in Dixs life. She attempted to reject the revivalistic Methodism of her childhood by embracing liberal Congregationalism, but Methodist teachings that the Christian could obtain perfection in this life had a lasting influence on her. While living in Boston in the 1820s she embraced Unitarianism under the influence of William Ellery Channing. Unitarian teachings that one can effect ones own salvation through good works, combined with Methodist perfectionism, produced within Dix an intense level of activism and a drive to find an overriding mission in life.

Benevolent Activities. While continuing her selfeducation and supporting herself by teaching and writing, she engaged in numerous benevolent activities during the 1820s and 1830s. Her first venture into a systematic study of social welfare occurred during a visit to Philadelphia in the early spring of 1828, when she collected information on the condition of the poor and on existing charity work in order to compare conditions in Philadelphia to those in Boston. After her grandmothers death in 1837 left her financially independent, Dix traveled throughout the middle states, spending a year in Washington, D.C., visiting charitable and educational institutions. She moved back to Boston in 1839 and commenced a study of benevolent and penal institutions in New England.

A Lifes Mission. Dix found her lifes mission in 1841, while teaching a Sunday school class of twenty women at the East Cambridge House of Corrections. While leaving the facility after her first class on a cold March day, she happened across some cells that had been set aside to house the mentally ill. Appalled that the cells had no heat, she discovered that the warden believed lunatics could not tell the difference between hot and cold. She successfully petitioned a court to require the prison to provide heat for all of its inmates.

Existing Facilities. For several years Dix had been following a public debate over the practice of housing the mentally ill in the same institutions as criminals. The state of Massachusetts had already opened two hospitals for the insane poor, the Boston Lunatic Hospital and the Worcester State Asylum. Dix admired the care given in those institutions under a system referred to as moral treatment, which emphasized kindness, politeness, orderliness, tranquility, and self-restraint. But according to the census of 1840, Massachusetts had 978 lunatics, while the two asylums had space for only 353 patients. That left 625 mentally ill people incarcerated in jails and almshouses.

Dixs Memorial. State legislator Samuel Gridley Howe led a movement to expand the asylums and outlaw the incarceration of the mentally ill. He enlisted Dixs help in publicizing the need for such reforms. In 1842 Dix systematically surveyed the jails and almshouses of Massachusetts, compiling information about the living conditions and treatment of the mentally ill. Early in 1843 she submitted her Memorial to the Massachusetts Legislature, in which she described appalling conditions and abuse. After explaining that the extreme urgency of the cause had compelled her to step from the private sphere of women into the public arena, Dix opened her report with stirring words: I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to ti\z present state of Insane Persons confined within the Commonwealth, in cages, closets, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!

A Crusade Is Launched. Dixs report sparked considerable controversy and some outright disbelief, but the public attention was exactly what she wanted. After much debate the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill authorizing the use of a charitable fund of $40, 000 for the expansion of the Worcester State Asylum. Having found her lifes cause, she moved her reform efforts first to Rhode Island and then to New York. Her efforts over the next forty years led fifteen states to establish hospitals for the mentally ill and resulted in the founding of another seventeen asylums by local authorities or private benefactors. She extended her efforts to include penal reform as well, publishing in 1845 her Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States. During the Civil War she superintended the Union armys nursing corps, returning afterward to her asylum reform efforts. She died in Trenton, New Jersey, on 17 July 1887.


David Gollaher, Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix (New York: Free Press, 1995).

Dix, Dorothea (1802-1887)

views updated May 21 2018

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887)


Conservative reformer

Unitarian Influence. Dorothea Dix carried to fulfillment the ideas about social order and personal harmony advanced by Unitarian-ism, which an evangelical critic dubbed the Boston religion because it was the faith of the elites in that city but enjoyed little following anywhere else. Dix was born 4 April 1802 in Hampden, Maine. She lived at times with the family of the most famous spokesman of the Unitarian faith, minister William Ellery Channing. Although Dix received little formal education, she recognized that teaching offered the readiest outlet for advancing her ideals. Her stern methods antagonized her pupils, however, and her plans to make her mark in education crumbled.

Asylum Lobbyist. In the 1840s Dix shifted her ideas from the schoolroom to a different institutional context, the insane asylum. Like Dixs classes, asylums providing the so-called moral treatment essentially offered a program of education that emphasized the importance of in-dustriousness and emotional tranquillity. Dix became famous as a lobbyist traveling from state to state advocating the establishment of new mental hospitals. In her early campaigns she attracted attention and developed credibility by preparing reports on the condition of the insane in each state. As her reputation spread she was able to rely on individual appeals to state legislators and cooperation with other supporters of asylum construction, including boosters of town development and physicians specializing in the treatment of mental illnesses. By 1850 her efforts had been instrumental in the founding of new mental hospitals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi in the seven years since her first crusade in her home state of Massachusetts had ended in the expansion of the Worcester State Asylum.

Land Politics. Dixs most important legislative initiative was a petition to Congress to appropriate ten million acres of public lands to endow state mental hospitals. Introduced in 1848, Miss Dixs bill, as politicians and journalists usually called the measure, made Dix a fixture in Washington until 1854. She professed to complete disgust with party politics, and among other goals her proposal would insulate public asylums from the political complications of relying entirely on legislative appropriations. At the same time, the bill grew out of a Whig tradition of looking to federal land sales to fund improvement projects, and Dixs strongest supporters were Whigs. She became especially friendly with President Millard Fillmore and through him exercised key decision-making authority in the establishment of the Government Hospital for the Insane (later Saint Elizabeths Hospital). Contrary to her nonpartisan stance, the bill eventually advanced into the national spotlight because of its Whig origins. As bitter infighting broke out in the Democratic Party during debates on the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Southern Democrats relaxed their resistance to Dixs measure in order to set up a veto by Franklin Pierce that for a brief but crucial period helped to rally the party. The tactic illustrated the ways in which the Democratic and Whig parties defined themselves through opposition to each other.

Civil War. During the sectional conflict Dix illustrated the situation of conservative Whigs whose party had dissolved. She supported her friend Fillmore on the Know Nothing ticket in 1856 and her friend John Bell on the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860. When the war came, her political savvy and humanitarian reputation earned her an appointment as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union army, a position of greater authority in the federal government than any woman had ever held. She hoped that she would be able to replicate the success of Florence Nightingale five years earlier in not merely providing aid to sick and wounded soldiers but also in providing a political symbol that helped to unify a divided nation. But Dixs war was instead a disastrous series of feuds with the United States Sanitary Commission, the Army medical bureau, and the younger generation of women eager to contribute to the war effort as nurses. The shattering of her reputation revealed the ways in which American values changed during the war, underlining particularly the determination of women to manifest the organizational discipline fostered by the war rather than applauding the self-reliance that Dix sought to exemplify. When she returned to the politics of insane asylums after the war she found that similar growth of bureaucratic management had undermined much of her influence. She died in 1887 after living for years in guest suites of mental hospitals that she had helped to found.


Thomas J. Brown, Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, forthcoming, 1998).

Dorothea Lynde Dix

views updated May 29 2018

Dorothea Lynde Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887) was an American reformer whose pioneer efforts to improve treatment of mental patients stimulated broad reforms in hospitals, jails, and asylums in the United States and abroad.

On April 4, 1802, Dorothea Dix, the daughter of Joseph and Mary Dix, was born in Hampden, Maine. When Joseph failed at farming, he became an itinerant preacher and wrote, printed, and sold tracts, which his wife and daughter laboriously sewed together. Dorothea remembered her childhood in that bleak, poverty-stricken household as a time of loneliness and despair. At the age of 12 she ran away from home and made her way to Boston, where she persuaded her grandmother to take her in. Two years later Dorothea went to Worcester to live with a great aunt and opened a school, which she maintained for 3 years. She returned to Boston in 1819 to attend public school and to study with private tutors.

Teaching Career

In 1821 Dix opened an academy for wealthy young ladies in her grandmother's house. She also conducted a free school for poor children. As a teacher, she was a strict disciplinarian, a rigorous moralist, and a passionate explorer of many fields of knowledge, including the natural sciences. Her contagious joy in teaching made her schools highly successful. During convalescent periods from attacks of chronic lung disease, she wrote children's books.

In 1835 ill health forced Dix to abandon teaching; she went abroad for 2 years. When she returned to America, she was in better health but irresolute about her future. Four years of indecision ended when she volunteered to teach a Sunday school class for young women in the East Cambridge, Mass., jail. She discovered that the quarters for the insane had no heat, even in the coldest weather. When the jailer explained that insane people did not feel the cold, and ignored her pleas for heat, she boldly took the case to court and won.

Mental Institution Reforms

For 2 years Dix traveled throughout Massachusetts, visiting jails, workhouses, almshouses, and hospitals, taking notes on the deplorable conditions she observed. In 1845 Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe presented her "Memorial to the Massachusetts Legislature." The address began, "I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons confined within the Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, pens; chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." This dramatic presentation caused a public controversy which won the support of Charles Sumner and other public figures in the resulting newspaper debate. Despite bitter opposition, the reform bill passed by a large majority.

Dix went on to other northeastern states and then throughout the country, state by state, visiting jails, almshouses, and hospitals, studying their needs, and eliciting help from philanthropists, charitable organizations, and state legislatures for building and renovating facilities and for improving treatment. During these years she founded new hospitals or additions in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Canada and received approval to found state hospitals by the legislatures of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

European Crusade

In 1848 Dix took her fight to Congress in an attempt to win appropriation of 12,500,000 acres of land, which would provide tax revenue for asylums. The bill finally passed both houses only to be vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. The discouraged reformer then traveled through England, Ireland, and Scotland, inspecting mental hospitals. English and Irish institutions were not bad, but Scottish facilities were appalling, and Miss Dix set about to improve them, taking her case finally to the lord advocate of Scotland.

Perhaps Dix's most significant European accomplishment was in Rome, where she discovered that "6,000 priests, 300 monks, 3,000 nuns, and a spiritual sovereignty, joined with the temporal powers, had not assured for the miserable insane a decent, much less an intelligent care." She negotiated an audience with Pius IX, who was moved by her appeal and personally verified her reports. He ordered construction of a new hospital and a thorough revision of the rules for the care of mental patients. Before her return to the United States, Dix evaluated hospitals and prisons in Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Austria, Russia, Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, and Germany and recommended reforms.

Civil War Nurse

In 1861 Dix volunteered her services for wartime duty in the Civil War. Appointed "superintendent of women nurses," she set up emergency training programs, established temporary hospitals, distributed supplies, and processed and deployed nurses. Despite wartime hardships she never relaxed her standards of efficient service, proper procedure, and immaculate hospital conditions. Her inspections of army hospitals did not make her popular with authorities, and her stringent ideas of duty and discipline were not shared by the relatively untrained nurses and jealous officials, who resented her autocratic manner. Although she was often discouraged by petty political opposition and the ever present problems of inadequate facilities, supplies, and staff, she carried out her duties until the end of the war.

Dix resumed her reform efforts until age forced her to retire. Until her death in 1887 she made her home in the Trenton, N.J., hospital, which she had often referred to affectionately as her "first child."

Further Reading

The most commonly cited biographies of Dorothea Dix are early ones. Francis Tiffany, The Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix (1890), is a standard work which contains copious quotations from letters and reports. More recent is Helen E. Marshall, Dorothea Dix: Forgotten Samaritan (1937). Additional details are provided in Gladys Brooks's concise and popular Three Wise Virgins (1957). See also Albert Deutsch, The Mentally Ill in America: A History of Their Care and Treatment from Colonial Times (1937; 2d ed. 1949), and Norman Dain's brief but scholarly Concepts of Insanity in the United States, 1789-1865 (1964). □

Dix, Dorothea Lynde

views updated Jun 08 2018


Dorothea Lynde Dix (18021887) was born to Joseph and Mary Dix on April 4, 1802, in Hampden, Maine. Her father was a farmer but became an itinerant Methodist preacher when he failed at farming. Dorothea Dix spent her early years in poverty, moving frequently and living a life she saw as bleak and lonely. At age twelve she moved to live with her grandparents in Boston. This was the first of several dramatic turns she was to experience in life.

Dix enjoyed and excelled at learning, and set up her first school at age fourteen. While she displayed a joy in teaching, she was also strictshe did not shy away from humiliating disobedient children. Dix operated her first school for three years in her aunt's home in Worcester. She closed the school to return to Boston and her own studies. In 1821 Dix opened another school in her grandmother's Boston home. After a year she added a free charity school for poor children.

Even while her schools were successful, ill health plagued Dix. Typically, Dix overworked herself and was forced to temporarily abandon teaching. She took to writing children's books while convalescing from frequent attacks of chronic lung disease. Her writing included textbooks, hymnbooks, and poetry.

Dix was attracted to the Unitarian Church. She admired Boston activist, (Unitarian) William Ellery Channing (18181901), whose children Dix tutored. Catering to Boston's Unitarian community, Dix revived her school in 1831, but she was forced to close it in 1835, again because of ill health. She moved to England to recover.

Dix returned to Boston in 1841 and began working as a Sunday school teacher in the women's jail at East Cambridge, Massachusetts. The conditions at the jail disgusted her, especially the treatment of mentally ill inmates. Dix took the jailer to court to improve conditions and won the case, beginning her life-long passion: championing the rights of the mentally ill.

Dix's work began in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where she brought attention to the plight of the mentally ill. To further her cause she became one of the first to gather and publish social statistics. In 1845 her statistically supported presentations secured reforms from the state legislature. Encouraged, Dix spread her crusade across the country, founding new hospitals or additions in fifteen states and Canada. In 1848 Dix lobbied Congress for legislation endorsing the sale of public lands to provide revenue for asylums, but the measure was defeated. Discouraged, she left for Europe on a tour of its hospitals and asylums. There, she observed the work of Florence Nightingale (18201910), whom she admired.

The American Civil War (18611865) brought Dix back to the United States, where she was appointed Superintendent of Women Nurses. Dix attempted to replicate for the U.S. Army Nightingale's work in the Russian Crimea. She was not popular with the U.S. government bureaucrats but nevertheless served her complete term before returning to her reform efforts. Chronic ill health forced her retirement in 1870. She retired to an asylum she had designed and built forty years earlier and died there in 1887.

Dorothea Dix lived her life at extremes: poverty and wealth, periods of great effort and success punctuated by ill health and infirmity, success in her teaching and her reforms punctuated by often deep opposition to her strident and strict ways. But because of her efforts, the number of mental hospitals in the United States increased from only thirteen in 1841 to 123 at the time of her death.


Commire, Anne, ed. Historic World Leaders. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994, s.v. "Dix, Dorothea Lynde."

Enclyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, Second Edition, 1998-1999, s.v. "Dix, Dorothea Lynde."

Marshall, Helen E. Dorothea Dix: Forgotten Samaritan. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

Tiffany, Francis. Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Boston: Houghton, 1891.

Dix, Dorothea Lynde

views updated Jun 11 2018

DIX, Dorothea Lynde

Born 4 April 1802, Hampden, Maine; died 17 July 1887, Trenton, New Jersey

Daughter of Joseph and Mary Bigelow Dix

Dorothea Dix was early acquainted with both poverty and privilege. Her father had become estranged from his family by dropping out of Harvard to marry Mary Bigelow, a poorly educated woman 20 years his senior, and by moving to the frontier territory of what was then northern Massachusetts to pursue his preferred vocation as itinerant Methodist minister. "I never knew a childhood," Dix was later to write, and in the grim wilderness settlement she spent her early years stitching religious tracts for her father and caring for her two younger brothers. Occasional visits with her grandparents in Boston whetted her appetite for education and culture, however, and at the age of twelve she ran away from home to live with her widowed grandmother, a strict disciplinarian who initiated Dix's formal education.

In 1816 Dix began her career as a teacher by opening a school for young children, a precocious endeavor which lasted for three years until she returned to Boston to be with her aging grandmother. Between 1824 and 1836, Dix devoted herself to teaching when she was physically able and to writing when she was not. On the advice of her physician, Dix spent more than a year in England.

For four years after her return to America Dix traveled, visited with friends, and studied as she searched for a vocation that would provide the stimulation and sense of purpose she had lost. In 1841, asked by a young Harvard divinity student to teach a Sunday school class for the female inmates of the East Cambridge jail, Dix discovered her mission. Incarcerated with the criminals, deprived not only of dignity but of even the most elemental necessities of warmth and adequate clothing, were the indigent insane. Horrified by what she observed that Sunday, Dix waged a campaign, using the newspaper as her primary forum, and aroused enough public indignation to alleviate the abuses at the jail. This was the first such victory for the woman who was to write in one of her memorials: "I am the hope of the poor crazed beings who pine in cells and stalls and cages and waste rooms—shut out, cut off from all healing influence, from all mind-restoring cures."

In "Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts," Dix enumerated in considerable detail conditions in jails, asylums, poorhouses, and private homes in which the insane were housed. Her catalogue of appalling abuses was direct, concrete, logical, persuasive—impassioned only in eloquent appeals to the humanitarian impulses of the legislators, who, as a result of her investigation, voted to expand the state facility for the mentally ill at Worcester.

From Massachusetts, Dix proceeded to Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and on, in each state anticipating her pleas for reform by a thorough, keen-sighted study of existing facilities. In 1845, a hospital was established at Trenton, New Jersey, the "first-born child" of a woman who was to bear many such offspring.

In 1848 Dix began a crusade for national legislation to set aside a tract of land (ultimately, 12.5 million acres) for care of the impoverished insane, and during the next six years, she lobbied, met with congressmen, and worked on her memorial for the proposal. In 1854 Dix's bill finally passed both houses of Congress, only to be vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. Discouraged by this defeat, Dix returned to England. This excursion, however, to the Old World was no vacation: rather, the "American Invader," as she was called, persisted in her efforts for reform, making forays into Scotland to promote better care for the insane, moving on to the continent to Italy, Russia, and Turkey.

Returning to America in 1856, Dix, now well known and in much demand, resumed her travels for five years. Interrupted by the chaos of war, she was made superintendent of nurses for the Union forces in 1861. In 1866, the war over, Dix continued her tours of hospitals and penal institutions, concentrating for a time on the ravaged South. In 1881 she retired to Trenton Hospital, where she died, six years later.

Although Dix never associated herself with the women's movement, judging any such involvement a distraction from her humanitarian efforts on behalf of the mentally ill, her achievements did much to reveal what one woman could accomplish. By working contrary to accepted mores of the feminine role and destiny, Dix fought for the humane and fair treatment of a powerless minority. She helped to establish 32 state institutions and 15 training schools, and provided the inspiration for numerous other facilities, both public and private, thereby earning the encomium conferred upon her at her death by a friend: "…the most useful and distinguished woman America has yet produced."

Other Works:

Conversations on Common Things (1824). Hymns for Children (1825). Evening Hours (1825). Meditations forPrivate Hours (1828). Garland of Flora (1829). American Moral Tales for Young Persons (1832). Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline (1845). Letter to the Convicts in the Western State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, Allegheney (1848). On Behalf of the Insane Poor: Selected Reports (Poverty, U.S.A.: The Historical Record Series, edited by D. J. Rothman, 1971).

The papers of Dorothea Lynde Dix are housed in the Houghton Library of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Brooks, G., Three Wise Virgins (1957). Dain, N., Concepts of Insanity in the United States, 1789-1865 (1964). Hurd, H. M., ed., Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada (4 vols., 1916-1917). Marshall, H. E., Dorothea Dix: Forgotten Samaritan (1937). Tiffany, F., Life of Dorothea L. Dix (1890). Tuke, D. H., Chapters in the History of the Insane in the British Isles (1882). Tuke, D. H., The Insane in the United States and Canada (1885). Wilson, D., Stranger and Traveler: The Story of Dorothea Dix, American Reformer (1975).


Dix, Dorothea

views updated May 18 2018


(b. April 4, 1802; d. July 17, 1887) Superintendent of Women Nurses during the Civil War.

Dorothea Dix was a leading social reformer who advocated humane treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill before the Civil War and became the Union's Superintendent of Women Nurses during that war.

She was born in Hampton, Maine, and raised in Massachusetts. Due to her family's poverty, her father's frequent absences, and her mother's semi-invalidism, Dix also spent time with her grandparents in Boston and with an aunt in Worcester. She eagerly sought an education and studied hard. Responding to her intense desire to teach, she opened a school for young children when she was only fourteen years old. In 1819, she went to live with her widowed grandmother and opened a school in Boston. She found in Unitarianism an outlet for her strong sense of faith. During the 1820s, Dix wrote an elementary school science textbook, books of a devotional nature, and a collection of children's short stories.

A serious bout with tuberculosis forced her to seek refuge in Rhode Island and, later, on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Dix returned to teaching, but within a few years, her health suffered and illness drove her to collapse. To recover, she went to England. There she encountered individuals who had committed their lives to prison reform and aid for the criminally insane.

When her grandmother died in 1837, Dix returned to the United States. An inheritance gave her freedom from teaching. Beginning in the 1840s she became involved in prison reform, inspired by what she had seen in England and appalled by the conditions in American jails. She launched a remarkable career as a champion of the indigent mentally ill, who had traditionally been kept under a family's care or incarcerated. Dix believed inmates who were mentally ill deserved far more humane treatment. She personally inspected hundreds of prisons and became widely known for her tireless efforts on behalf the mentally ill.

Through this work Dix had her greatest impact, traveling tens of thousands of miles to visit prisons, raise money, and lobby states to build hospitals for the mentally ill. In the late 1840s, she began seeking help at the

federal level, urging Congress to pass a law that would set aside public lands for the mentally ill, the blind, the deaf, and the mute. Congress initially turned down her request; a subsequent bill did pass in 1854 but was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Dix volunteered to serve the Union. She was appointed Superintendent of Women Nurses in June, 1861. During the war, she trained some 180 women for the nursing profession. Yet her efforts were riddled with discord and frustration. There were frequent conflicts with Army physicians, many of whom opposed female nurses and sought to limit their authority. Dix clashed with doctors who felt they, rather than she, should have control of medical facilities. Physicians harassed Dix's nurses and turned to Catholic nuns and female volunteers who assisted without official status.

Dix showed little respect or patience with those whom she felt were less committed to the effort than she was. Her criteria for nurses were strict: She preferred the plain-looking and women who were over thirty, desiring to employ no young woman who envisioned the nursing of soldiers as a romantic adventure. Furthermore, she insisted on dismissing all volunteer nurses, whom she had not hired. She eventually lost the support of the United States Sanitary Commission and other groups, which initially had helped her recruit and train nurses.

In October, 1863, the War Department authorized the Surgeon General, as well as Dix, to appoint female nurses and gave physicians control over the assignment of nurses to hospitals, thus undercutting Dix's authority. After that point, her role as Superintendent of Women Nurses was primarily symbolic, though nonetheless potentially significant. With the war's end, she submitted her resignation in August 1865. She was later elected president for life of the Army Nurses Association, but took little interest in the organization and opposed its petitions to get pensions for female nurses and to promote women's suffrage.

Dix spent her later years visiting mental hospitals and prisons and continued to promote good care for the mentally ill. But her energy and stamina declined. She spent her final years in poor health, living in Trenton, New Jersey, where she died July 17, 1887.

Dorothea Dix brought her considerable skills to her service in the Civil War, but her personality, impatience, and take-charge attitude often had a negative effect on those with whom she worked. Nevertheless, she did hire, train, and oversee nearly 200 women who served as nurses during the war, and through that effort helped to open the nursing profession to women.


Brown, Thomas J. Dorothea Dix, New England Reformer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Sizer, Lyde Cullen. The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850–1872. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Sally G. McMillen

See also:Medicine and Health; United States Sanitary Commission.

Dix, Dorothea

views updated May 14 2018


Dorothea Dix was born in 1802 in a rural section of Maine. After moving to Boston at the age of fourteen to live with her wealthy but austere grandmother, Dix became a schoolteacher and writer. In 1835, however, she suffered a physical and psychological collapse. She traveled to England, where under the care of philanthropists William and Elizabeth Rathbone, Dix regained her health. In England, she also came into contact with new ideas about social reform and government responsibility.

After returning to the United States, she initiated a public health movement to reform the treatment of the indigent mentally ill. At the time, paupers who were mentally ill were incarcerated alongside convicted criminals and often housed in unheated, unfurnished, and squalid quarters. After conducting an extensive investigation throughout Massachusetts, Dix wrote her most influential tract, Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts (1843). Dix's thirty-two page report humanized the plight of the mentally ill residing in state institutions, and Massachusetts responded with legislation.

As an antisuffragist and antiabolitionist, Dix appealed for her causes to male politicians as well as southerners, and she prompted cities and states throughout the nation to create better facilities for the mentally ill. Motivated by her success, Dix proposed placing a large land grant in the custodial care of the federal government to provide perpetual funding for the care of the indigent mentally ill of America. Her plan, however, fell to a presidential veto in 1851. Dix took on a new challenge during the Civil War, accepting the position of Superintendent of Women Nurses, but her personality was ill suited for this administerial position. Towards the end of her life, Dix chose to reside in Trenton, New Jersey, at the first complete hospital built through her efforts, where she died in 1887.

Jennifer Koslow

(see also: Homelessness; Mental Health )


Brown, Thomas J. (1998). Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gollaher, David. L. (1995). Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix. New York: The Free Press.

Dix, Dorothea

views updated May 29 2018

Dix, Dorothea (1802–1887), humanitarian, Union Superintendent of Women Nurses in the Civil War.Born in Hampden, Maine, Dix spent her life as a social activist, dedicated to improving the care and treatment of the insane. Beginning in 1841, she spearheaded the movement to establish asylums—as a social responsibility and financed by public funds—to replace the jails and alms houses in which the mentally impaired were confined. She was responsible, through her remarkable ability to influence people and legislatures, for the founding or enlarging of more than thirty mental hospitals in the United States and abroad.

With the outbreak of the Civil War she offered her services, gratis, to the secretary of war in April 1861. She was given the responsibility “to select and assign women nurses to general and permanent military hospitals.” Two months later, she was named Superintendent of Women Nurses.

Dix rented a house in Washington at her own expense, advertised nationally for volunteers, and weeded out those she thought physically or morally unsuitable. She accepted only nurses over thirty years of age and refused to allow Roman Catholic nuns or other religious orders to serve. Independent, autocratic, eccentric, working outside of established lines of authority and assuming powers beyond her responsibility, she antagonized the medical establishment. Military doctors, supported by the U.S. Sanitary Commission, resented her domineering intrusions. Although her authority was reaffirmed by Surgeon General William A. Hammond in July 1862, in October of that year Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issued an order that gave the appointment, assignment, and control of nurses to hospital surgeons and medical directors. Dix was left without authority. She continued to work in the hospitals in the Washington area, however, and did not relinquish her title as superintendent until September 1866.

Dix returned to her interest in the insane. In 1881, ill, she accepted an apartment offered to her at the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton, where she lived until her death.
[See also Sanitary Commission, U.S.]


Francis Tiffany , Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix, 1890.
David Gollaher , Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix, 1995.

David L. Cowen

Dorothea Lynde Dix

views updated Jun 11 2018

Dorothea Lynde Dix


American who led the crusade to build state hospitals for the mentally ill. In 1841 Dix visited a correctional facility in Massachusetts and was stunned by the treatment of the mentally ill. She lobbied the United States legislature to improve prison conditions and insane asylums and requested funds for an institution specially designed to treat the mentally ill in Massachusetts. She did the same in state after state, traveling thousands of miles alone throughout the U.S. and Europe until she was 80. Dix also served as superintendent of the U.S. Army Nurses during the Civil War.

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