Dorothea Lynde Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) was an American activist on behalf of the indigent insane who, through a vigorous program of lobbying state legislatures and the United States Congress, created the first generation of American mental asylums. During the Civil War, she served as Superintendent of Army Nurses.
The reception of 'Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline' Confirmed Dix's emergence as one of the most widely admired women in America. The response from Boston was predictable enough. Sumner, who apparently shared the publication costs with Emerson and other friends, greeted it with enthusiastic admiration in the Christian Examiner.... Officials at the Charlestown prison denied her allegations, and a visiting committee divided between advocates of the separate and congregate systems found itself identically divided on the accuracy of Dix's description. But unlike Sumner and Howe, Dix made few enemies among Boston opponents who thought her admirably benevolent if somewhat misguided.
Dorothea Dix played an instrumental role in the founding or expansion of more than 30 hospitals for the treatment of the mentally ill. She was a leading figure in those national and international movements that challenged the idea that people with mental disturbances could not be cured or helped. She also was a staunch critic of cruel and neglectful practices toward the mentally ill, such as caging, incarceration without clothing, and painful physical restraint. Dix may have had personal experience of mental instability that drove her to focus on the issue of asylum reform, and certainly her singular focus on the issue led to some important victories.
Dix derived from this stock analysis the novel inference that the federal government shared a duty to address the problem that it helped to create. She appealed not only to the compassion of Congress, but also to its "civil and social obligation" to restore the usefulness of the insane "as citizens of the republic." Contrasting asylums with the public schools funded by federal land grants, she observed that "comparatively but little care is given in cultivating the moral affections in proportion with the intellectual development of the people." The insane were "wards of the nation," she argued, and could not be relieved solely by state government that already collected unpopular taxes to support mental hospitals.
The medieval conception of insanity as a possession by devils had gradually changed to one as cruel in effect, that of nature depraved and fallen to the brute and treated as a beast. In 1840 there were only eight insane asylums in the United States. Devoted and high-principled doctors were there practising the enlightened ideas of Philippe Pinel of France and William Tuke of England, but their efforts made only a flicker of light in the darkness where cruelty, callous indifference, and self-interest created misery unnoticed and unchallenged. An apostle was needed to bring the evil to public attention. On Mar. 28, 1841, Dorothea Dix undertook a Sunday-school class in the East Cambridge (Mass.) House of Correction. Visiting the jail, she found insane persons in an unheated room. After vain protest, she brought the matter to the East Cambridge court, with success. Aroused by the distress she had observed, she spent two years in a quiet, unobserved, thorough investigation of the condition of the insane, in jails, almshouses, and houses of correction, throughout Massachusetts.
Between 1841 and 1845, three hospitals for the insane were enlarged or refounded (Worcester, Mass.; Butler, at Providence, R. I.; Utica, N. Y.) and three new hospitals founded (Trenton, N. J.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Toronto, Canada). Between 1845 and 1852, she carried the legislatures of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Maryland, for state hospitals and caused the founding of the hospital at Halifax, N. S. But her great effort for the passage of a twelve-million-dollar bill for land, to be set aside for taxation toward the care of the insane, met defeat in 1854 by President Pierce's veto, after the bill had passed the houses of Congress.
Dix served as Superintendent of Nurses through the end of the war in 1865, at which time she returned to her work advocating for the mentally ill. She continued this service until her death in 1887.
At the start of the Civil War in 1861 Dix was inspired to aid the war effort. On April 19, when a Massachusetts regiment en route to Washington was attacked by a secessionist mob in Baltimore, Maryland, Dix immediately took action. She took a train to Baltimore intending to help care for the wounded, but found improvised hospitals already providing aid. She then continued on to DC where, on the same day as the attack in Baltimore, she offered her services as a nurse at the War Department. Though she had no formal medical training or experience, Dix was made Superintendent of the United States Army Nurses on June 10. She quickly and adeptly acquired medical supplies and selected and trained nurses to administer to DC hospitals. Dix was a strict captain, requiring that all of her nurses be over thirty, plain looking, and wear dull uniforms. She earned a reputation for being firm and inflexible, but ran an efficient and effective corps of nurses.
An inheritance allowed her to live comfortably and she remained inactive until 1841. Her clergyman asked her to begin teaching Sunday school in the East Cambridge House of Correction in Massachusetts. It was there that she learned that insane and mentally ill people were incarcerated like, and with, criminals. Unlike criminals, however, they were often chained to the walls and were left in near total darkness in the cold, without the benefit of clothes. Dix began an investigation into the conditions for insane asylums, submitted a report to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843 that detailed her findings. Her findings, and determination, helped to improve insane asylums in Massachusetts and then, later, in fifteen states, Canada and Italy.
Dix did not truly discover her life’s work until she was almost forty years old. She did not become a leader in the asylum movement until she herself experienced a debilitating bout of depression and physical illness in 1836.
Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, in 1802. Evidence suggests she may have been neglected by her parents, and she appears to have been unhappy at home. She moved to Boston in 1814 to live with her wealthy grandmother. Dix had only attended school sporadically while living with her parents, but in early adulthood, with limited options for women in the professions, Dix became a schoolteacher. She established an elementary school in her grandmother’s home in 1821, and 3 years later, published a small book of facts for schoolteachers that proved extremely popular. By the time of the Civil War, Conversations on Common Things; or, Guide to Knowledge: With Questions had been reprinted 60 times. Written in the style of a conversation between a mother and a daughter, and directed at the young women who dominated the teaching profession, the book reflected Dix’s belief that women should be educated to the same level as men.