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.
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.
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 on Dorothea Lynde Dix
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).