Dix, Dorothea

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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

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