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Biography of Dorothea Dix, American advocate for the mentally ill, especially the destitute. She advocated intensely and effectively for them.
As the founder of the movement known as mental hygiene, her main objective was to achieve dignified psychological treatment for any individual, even for the homeless.
Her total and effective dedication was key to changing the sanitary conditions of the centers where people with mental illness were detained.
Dorothea Dix Lynde Childhood and Family
Dorothea Dix Lynde was born on April 4, 1802 in Hampden, a city located in the northeast of the United States, in the State of Massachusetts.
Dorothea Dix was the eldest of the three children of Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow. Both parents belonged to wealthy and deep-rooted families in Massachusetts since colonial times.
Dorothea’s father, Joseph Dix, was a Methodist preacher and worked as an itinerant bookseller. Unfortunately, both Joseph and Mary Bigelow were alcoholics. Furthermore, Mary Bigelow suffered from serious psychological disorders.
This made Dorothea Dix highly sensitive to the most disadvantaged and people with social integration problems.
In addition, these circumstances made Dorothea Dix’s early childhood take place in Worcester, 65 km from Boston, in the State of Massachusetts, among relatives of her parents.
At the age of twelve, Dorothea sought another refuge, this time in Boston, at the home of her wealthy grandmother, Dorothea Lynde, and her grandfather, Dr. Elijah Dix, a person with strong social and political convictions.
Dorothea Dix began to dedicate herself to teaching
Around 1821, with the financial help of wealthy families in the city, the young Dorothea Dix opened her own paying school, in Boston.
Soon after, she began to teach poor children as well, in the barn of her grandmother’s house.
Already at that time, Dorothea had health problems. It seems that she suffered severe depressive episodes that contributed to undermine her already precarious health.
From 1824 to 1830, her intellectual restlessness led her to write some books and stories for children, which demonstrate her intelligence and culture:
- “Conversations on Common Things, or Guide to Knowledge: With Questions”(1828), which had 60 editions and is still for sale, on Amazon.
- “The Garland of Flora” (1829) was one of the first two flower dictionaries published in the United States. The latest edition is from September 2010 and is for sale, on Amazon.
- “Remarks On Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States” still on sale, on Amazon.
- “Private Hours” (1835), still for sale, on Amazon.
Dorothea Dix in the 1830s to 1840s
After Dorothea Linde’s health forced her to drop out of school, she began working as a governess at Beacon Hill for the family of William Ellery Channing, a leading intellectual.
In 1831, she founded a model school for girls in Boston, which operated until 1836, when Dorothea suffered another serious health problem caused by tuberculosis.
Her family encouraged her to undertake a trip to Europe, hoping that it would serve to improve her and, at the same time, open new horizons.
While in England, she met the Rathbone family and several British social reformers: Elizabeth Fry, Samuel Tuke and William Rathbone.
The Rathbones invited her to Greenbank, their stately mansion in Liverpool. Dorothea Dix was a young American woman, rich, intelligent, well educated and full of concerns.
There, Dorothea Dix was able to meet prominent Quakers and prominent personalities dedicated to carrying out social reforms.
She became acquainted with Elizabeth Frye, a prison reformer, and Samuel Tuke, an expert in the construction and administration of asylums with a social sensitivity.
At Greenbank, Dorothea Linde befriended prominent personalities dedicated to carrying out social reforms; and that they believed that government should play a direct and active role in social welfare.
She also met people belonging to a movement called “madness reform“. These people advocated better care for the mentally ill in Britain.
The members of this movement carried out serious investigations in asylums and mental asylums. The best thing was that they published the results of their studies and sent the reports to the House of Commons.
In the early eighteenth century, people who showed signs of severe psychic disorders were branded as “crazy.” They were crowded and caged in madhouses, in subhuman conditions and with absolutely unworthy treatments.
One of the factors that contributed to change this conviction in England was the treatment that was given to George III (1760-1801) known as “the mad king“.
Little by little, a psychosocial approach to mental disorders began to emerge in England. The confinement and isolation of the “sick” was radically rejected and the cultivation of social relations was encouraged.
Dorothea Dix’s intelligence and moral principles made her immediately sympathetic to this therapeutic perspective and to the mental hygiene movement fostered by her new English friends.
In fact, it was the emergence of moral therapy in Europe and the United States that turned psychiatric institutions (madhouses) into habitable places for the recovery of the patient.
Dorothea Dix action for the mentally ill
While in England, Dorothea Dix’s mother and grandmother died. Her grandmother left her an appreciable patrimony that allowed her to be financially autonomous.
Sunday, March 28, 1841 was a very cold day in Boston. Dorothea had volunteered to teach a Sunday School for twenty female inmates with mental health problems in the Cambridge, Massachusetts jail.
After finishing the class, Dorothea Dix went to the lowest level of the building. There were the dungeons, where the patients considered crazy were chained to the wall and to the beds. She saw that the patients were dirty, malnourished, without heating and that many of them slept on the stone floor.
She decided to visit other centers, asylums, jails and correctional facilities. She took note of the places she visited, and denounced the deplorable conditions, overcrowding, and physical, mental, and sexual abuse that she noted during her visits.
Between the years 1840-41, Dorothea Dix carried out research at the state level, in relation to the care of the poor with mental illnesses.
She found that there was nothing regulated about it, that the funds allocated to it were insufficient and that there was widespread abuse.
In the report that Dorothea Dix published and sent to the state authorities, she said, among other things: “… there are insane people confined within these institutions, who are in cages or in kind of corrals, chained, naked, beaten with bars and flogged…. “.
She cited the case of a man who was previously respected as a legislator and a jurist and who, suffering from mental deterioration, fell out of favor when he reached his old age. Dorothea Dix found him lying on a small bed in the basement of the county charity home.
In her report she described him as: “This weak and depressed old man, poor, helpless, lonely …”. Many members of Congress and the Senate knew this former jurist.
In each city, she looked for the most important people among them, gathered them together, addressed them with emotional speeches, and did not leave the town until the appropriate measures were taken to improve the situation of the mentally ill.
Dorothea Dix not only lectured everywhere she passed, but she wrote articles in the newspaper incessantly. Her eloquence and erudition aroused the sympathy of local leaders.
She had traveled thousands of miles from one State to another in all the means of transportation that could be used, whether by train, bus, car, or by river by boat.
Always compiling all the verified facts, to then present them to the authorities and be able to convince them to improve the care of the mentally ill, through changes in current legislation.
Dorothea Dix’s efforts resulted in a bill to expand the facilities of the State Psychiatric Hospital in Worcester.
During the year 1844, Dorothea Dix visited all prisons and charities in the State of New Jersey in a similar investigation.
In the report she presented to New Jersey congressmen, she detailed her observations and experiences.
The prestige and power of conviction of Dorothea Dix got legislators to immediately propose the allocation of the necessary funds for the construction of an adequate center for the care and treatment of the mentally ill.
Some politicians secretly opposed, to avoid charging the necessary taxes to support the project. Dorothea Dix continued to press with letters and editorials in the newspapers.
On March 25, 1845, the bill for the establishment of a state facility for the adequate care of the mentally ill was passed.
Dorothea Dix continued to advocate for the mentally ill
Dorothea Dix traveled from New Hampshire to Louisiana, and to Illinois, where she obtained the approval of the first Illinois state psychiatric hospital in January 1847.
In 1848, Dorothea Dix visited North Carolina, and after several months of efforts at all levels, she managed to establish the “State Medical Society” and the authorization to build an asylum dedicated to the care of patients with mental illness.
Eight years later, in 1856 this asylum was inaugurated with the name of “Dix Hill Asylum“, in honor of Dorothea Dix’s father. A century later, in 1956, it became the “Dorothea Dix Hospital“.
Dorothea Dix’s paths intersected those of Harriet Tubman. From 1841, Dorothea dedicated her life to improving the situation of the mentally ill in the USA. Since 1849, Harriet Tubman has consistently risked her own to free more than 300 black slaves in the southern United States.
Dorothea Dix promoted the project “Land Law”
After ten years of intense activity for the benefit of the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix was known and respected at high political levels.
This encouraged her to propose a large bill in Washington for the benefit of the mentally ill and homeless. The project would be financed by the sale of almost 50,000 square km of state land.
Proceeds from their sale would be distributed to all states to build and maintain asylums.
Dorothea Dix’s “Land Law” bill passed through both houses of the United States Congress, but was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce in 1854.
Grieved by the defeat of her land bill, Dorothea Dix traveled to England and Europe in the years 1854 and 1855.
She began a long journey that took her through the following countries: British Isles, France, Greece, Russia, Canada, Japan and the United States.
In England she found the support of the Rathbone family and numerous politicians. She devoted herself to investigating the conditions of the mentally ill in the madhouses in Scotland.
Dorothea Dix spreading her work across Europe. Even Dix arrived in Rome, where Pope Pius IX was receptive to Dorothea Dix’s projects.
His Holiness visited the asylums himself, and was surprised by their poor conditions, noting that the sick were “cruelly mistreated“.
Dorothea Dix during the American Civil War
On June 10, 1861, Dorothea Dix was appointed “Superintendent of Nurses” of the Union Army.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, the Union had no military nursing corps, ambulance service, field hospital service, or organized medical corps.
As superintendent, Dorothea Dix implemented the Federal Army Nursing Program. She put aside all her work and focused entirely on the ongoing war.
She resigned in August 1865 and later regarded this “episode” in her career as a failure.
Dorothea Dix’s post-war life
After the war, Dorothea Dix undertook a crusade to improve the care of prisoners, the disabled and the mentally ill.
Her first step was to review the asylums and prisons in the south to assess the damage of the war in its facilities.
In 1875, two new state hospitals for the mentally ill were founded in North Carolina: the “Broughton State Hospital” and the “Goldsboro Hospital for Black Madmen“.
Dorothea Dix actively advocated for the founding of the first public psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania, the “Harrisburg State Hospital“.
In 1881 Dorothea Dix became ill and retired to a private apartment reserved for her at the New Jersey State Hospital, the first of the hospitals she had founded and where she had been granted the privilege of having a suite for her use particular for life.
Although she was in poor health, she maintained a large correspondence with people from the United States, England and Japan, during the six years that she was still alive.
Dorothea Dix passed away at age 85, on July 17, 1887, at Trenton Hospital, New Jersey, which she had founded.
She was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Dorotea Dix Awards and Honors
Dorothea Dix was elected “President for Life” of the Army Nurses Association.
In December 1866 she was awarded two national flags for her service during the Civil War.
In 1979 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In 1983, the United States Postal Service honored her life of charity and service by issuing a 1-cent postage stamp from the Dorothea Dix Great Americans series.
In 1999, the Massachusetts State House included a series of six tall, marble panels with a bronze bust on each. One of the six busts is that of Dorothea Dix.
A United States Navy transport ship that served in World War II was named USS Dorothea L. Dix.
A crater on Venus was named Dix in her honor.
Dorothea Dix is commemorated by many places, including the Dorothea L Dix House.
Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.