Dorothea Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) was a Christian social reformer who largely operated in the public sphere. During her life time, she became one of the most influential social reformers of the nineteenth century. Before becoming the “voice of the mentally ill,” she began a career as a teacher and soon opened up a school for young women. She taught during the day and wrote religious and education literature late into the evening both of which served as the basis of her teaching.

A little later in life, she brought into the public eye what her own eyes had a hard time believing. While teaching Sunday school classes to imprisoned women, she heard stories about the mentally ill that shocked her. She began to visit local prisons for the mentally ill and the stories she heard were true. She found that many were “confined in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience” and that they were “thrown food as if they were dogs.” These living quarters were sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. When it rained, the cell floors flooded and the walls increased with mold. Some had missing feet, hands, or legs that were lost to frostbite and infection. People were “Forced to live with neither dignity nor hope” and they “tended to sink deeper and deeper into unresponsive despair.”

Her advocacy as a reformer was built upon her first hand experiences that were heightened in 1841 as the result of a systematic tour of the jails, prisons, and almshouses throughout Massachusetts. She detailed her findings in a report that she presented to the Massachusetts legislature two years later.

She referred to her report as a memorial, which arguably was the single most important document in the history of mental illness and its treatment in the United States at the time – (see reform/resources/memorial-legislature-massachusetts).

Her memorial was steeped in the tradition of the Moral Treatment Movement that gained traction in the nineteenth century whereby patients were expected to be treated by professionals in an appropriate and humane manner.” She wrote

“I come to present the strong claims of suffering humanity. I come to place before the Legislature of Massachusetts the condition of the miserable, the desolate, the outcast. I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane, and idiotic men and women; of beings sunk to a condition from which the most unconcerned would start with real horror; of beings wretched in our prisons, and more wretched in our almshouses. And I cannot suppose it needful to employ earnest persuasion, or stubborn argument, in order to arrest and fix attention upon a subject only the more strongly pressing in its claims because it is revolting and disgusting in its details.”

Her memorial was also imbued with moral persuasion that weaved together statements meant to integrate reason, righteousness, morals, and divine will. She ended her memorial by stating

Gentlemen, I commit to you this sacred cause. Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands. In this legislation, as in all things, may you exercise that “wisdom which is the breath of the power of God.”

The legislature passed a bill that provided funds to expand the state hospital at Worcester in order to improve the conditions for the mentally ill.

For Dix, operating in the public sphere meant taking her cause to other states and speaking to legislative groups after witnessing and interviewing those who made up the prisons, hospitals, and alms houses in their states. She also wrote numerous articles and books about her findings and advocacy. She was far ahead of her time by advocating a role for the national government in such care.

The results of her public actions brought about 32 new hospitals including a governmental hospital which later became St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in southeast Washington, D.C and the number of hospitals for the mentally ill increased almost ten-fold–from 13 to 123–during her lifetime.

Later in life, she was appointed as the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses during the Civil War. Before the war, army nursing duties were done by ambulatory male nurses. Dix convinced skeptical military officials that women could also do the job as well and recruited 2,000 women into the army. She received special recognition for her service during the war in December 1866 when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton awarded her two national flags for “the Care, Succor, and Relief of the Sick and wounded Soldiers of the United States on the Battle-Field, in Camps and Hospitals during the recent War.”

In 1881, she moved into the New Jersey State Hospital (Morris Plains) which was a hospital that she founded and passed away while residing there six years later.

Recommended Reading and Reflection:

  • Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix Hardcover by David L. Gollaher;
  • ┬áLife of Dorothea Lynde Dix (Classic Reprint) by Francis Tiffany;
  • Remarks on prisons and prison discipline in the United States by Dorothea Lynde Dix.

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