Dorothea Lynde Dix (April 4, 1802- July 17. 1887) was born to Joseph and Mary Dix in Hampden, Maine at the beginning of the 19th century. Later in life, she described her childhood as being filled with poverty and loneliness. At a young age she left home, moving to Boston, Massachusetts to live with her grandmother.
The first leg of Dix’s career as a public servant began when she started teaching in 1821. She originally began with teaching wealthy girls from her grandmother's house and then began to teach poor children for free. A chronic lung condition however, forced her to stop teaching for a few years. When she returned to teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she discovered a new passion for mental health reform. In Cambridge, she was teaching Sunday school to young women. Here, she discovered that the women who were considered “insane” did not have access to heat at any point during the year, including during the harsh winters. This is when she knew she needed to begin advocating for people suffering with mental illnesses.
Dix’s career as an advocate for people with mental illness began in 1841, following her discoveries in Cambridge. Her goal was to document the horrid conditions that patients with mental illnesses were relegated to, writing to state legislatures in hopes of helping to improve these living conditions. Dix was not allowed to speak in front of the legislature because she was a woman. Instead, she was forced to write to the state legislature and then wait outside of the building while the legislature reviewed her documents (Smark 2005).
After writing a memorandum to the Massachusetts’ state legislature she successfully drafted a plan for mental health reform in the state. After studying various prisons and boarding houses, she documented their conditions, adding her recommendations for reform. In “I tell What I have Seen,” Dix shares some of her various findings, which included: women being held in cages, people being chained by hand and foot, an individual being housed “in a closed stall for 17 years”, and people being confined to such small spaces that they were losing the use of their limbs. At the time there was immense stigma around people with mental illness, and some even believed that those suffering lacked basic human qualities, such as the ability to feel cold. Her recommendations around reform were based around the concept of moral therapy. This included things such as getting rid of restraints used on patients, and allowing them to read books and listen to music (Smark 2005). In Massachusetts, her reform led to the expansion and reformation of the Worcester State Mental Hospital.
Her success in Massachusetts led to the implementation of the plan in other states, including Illinois. One of the most impressive achievements of Dix’s career was founding the first mental hospital in the state. Much like she did in Massachusetts, Dix traveled through the central and northern parts of Illinois, documenting her findings, and going on to write a memorandum to be presented to the state legislature. After Dix made her suggestions, a long political battle ensued in the state. Finally however, a hospital was established, and a superintendent was chosen to run the hospital. When the administration of the hospital began to revert to earlier abusive practices, Dix stepped in once again, writing to the Illinois legislature asking for assistance for the institution in 1861 (Norbury 1999).
After she spent time writing to legislatures and helping to found and reform mental hospitals in the United States, she went straight to the federal government, requesting that five million acres of land be cordoned off to be used for the care of those Americans suffering with various forms of mental illness. In 1854, the bill passed through both houses of Congress, but was then vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. Following this, she traveled to Europe for what she intended to be a period of rest. Ultimately though, she involved herself in advocating for the mentall ill population there as well. Similarly to what she had done in the United States, she began to travel around, visiting various hospitals and prisons in England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, and speaking with their respective authorities with the goal of enacting change (Viney & Zorich 1982).
Arriving back in the United States in 1856, the course of Dix’s life was changed by the events of the Civil War. Dix went on to spend the final years of her public service as the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses during the war. This position was the highest military position held by any woman during this era. Dix was a very strict administrator and had rigid guidelines when it came to hiring nurses, which many individuals disapproved of. For example, she only hired nurses between the ages of thirty five and fifty because she believed that anyone younger would be distracting to the male soldiers. Her rules faced much criticism, and this would be the beginning of the end of her career. Dix herself even went so far as to say that her time as the Superintendent of nurses during the war was a failure, and that she did not want her life to be judged on that work alone (Galik 2017).
Dix’s life came full circle when she passed away in 1887, after a six year stay in the state hospital in Trenton, New Jersey. This facility happened to be the first hospital that was founded entirely as a result of her own efforts.
"Dorothea Lynde Dix." In Encyclopedia of World Biography Online. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998. Gale In Context: Biography (accessed June 15, 2021).
Galik, Emily. “Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Nurses: When an Activist Becomes an Administrator” Women Leading Change: Case Studies on Women, Gender, and Feminism 2, no. 1 (December 2017) 31-44.
Norbury, Frank B. “Dorothea Dix and the Founding of Illinois’ First Mental Hospital” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) 92, no. 1 (Spring 1999) 13-29.
Smark, Ciorstan J. “Dorothea Dix: A Social Researcher and Reformer” University of Wollongong (January 2005) 1-10.
Viney, Wayne and Zorich, Steven. “Contributions to the History of Psychology: XXIX Dorothea Dix and the History of Psychology” Psychological Reports 50 (1982) 211-218.
Deutsch, Abert. “Dorothea Lynde Dix: Apostle of the Insane” The American Journal of Nursing 36, no. 10 (October 1936) 987-997
Gollaher, David L. “Dorothea Dix and the English Origins of the American Asylum Movement” Canadian Review of American Studies 23, no. 3 (Spring 1993) 149-175
Michel, Sonya. “Dorothea Dix; or, the Voice of the Maniac” Discourse 17, no. 2 (Winter 1994-1995) 48-66