The bronze medallion in the Extra Mile memorial - Photo credit - WWP team, and Dix' portrait - Photo credit - LOC
A social reformer who promoted the establishment of mental asylums and proper treatment of the indigent mentally ill.
Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her parents were alcoholics, and her father was abusive. At 12, she and her two brothers moved to live with her grandmother in Boston.
At 14, she taught at a school for girls in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she developed a curriculum for her class that focused on natural sciences and ethical living. Five years later, she returned to Boston and opened a school for girls from wealthy families and a charity school for poor and neglected children she ran from her grandmother’s barn. Her declined health has forced her to give up her teaching career, and she began to work as a governess.
In 1836, after suffering a breakdown, she was encouraged to travel to Europe to improve her health. While visiting England, she met a group of social reformers who advocated for government involvement in social welfare, especially in the management of mental institutions and asylums. Back in the US, she started teaching female prisoners at East Cambridge House of Correction. There, she observed the inhumane conditions of the mentally ill, who were locked in the dark basements without heat and sanitary facilities, being flogged and chained to the walls.
Dix embarked on a two-year journey throughout the state, visiting asylums and prisons and recording the disgraceful conditions she examined. In 1845, she published her conclusions in a report titled Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States. After presenting it to the Massachusetts legislature, he increased the budget of the State Mental Hospital at Worcester. Her local successes drove her to expand her efforts to the entire country. She visited facilities in the north and the south, from New York and Pennsylvania to the Carolinas and Louisiana, documenting the treatment of patients, lobbing for improving asylums’ conditions, and adding more hospitals for the mentally ill. She reached out to politicians, advocation to pass federal legislation to establish supervised national asylums; in 1848, US Congress approved a bill to secure 12 million acres of land for the cause. Unfortunately, it got vetoed by President Franklin Pierce in 1854.
Following the setback, Dix returned to Europe, continuing her investigation on mental treatment throughout the continent and lobbying for reforms for its improvement. Thanks to her efforts, numerous new institutes were established in Italy, Scotland, England, and the Channel Islands.
During the American Civil War, she volunteered as a nurse in the Union Army and was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses. In this position, she was in charge of setting up field hospitals, managing supplies, recruiting nurses, and overseeing their training programs. While most male doctors opposed the presence of female nurses, Dix appointed more than 3,000 female nurses to the Union Army and advanced the role of field women nurses for years to come.
When the war ended, Dix resumed her campaign to improve the caring conditions of the mentally ill and the disabled, leading to the founding of more than 30 institutes across the US and Canada. In 1870, at 68, she contracted malaria and had to give up her traveling, though she continued to promote the cause by every other means available to her. 1881, at 79, she moved into a designated suite built for her in the New Jersey State Hospital, an institute that she had founded. She died six years later, at the age of 85.
Prof. Allison discusses mental illness, as well as the life and accomplishments of Dorothea Dix, a teacher and mental health reformer
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“Every evil has its good, and every ill an antidote.”
“Every evil has its good, and every ill an antidote.”
- She wrote several textbooks and devotional books for children.
- She was engaged for a short time to her second cousin but never married.
- Her textbook, Conversations on Common Things, published in 1824, was reprinted 60 times, reaching its 16th edition in 1869.
- While in Italy, she visited an asylum with Pope Pius IX, who was appalled by what he saw and urged reform in the country.
- She led a campaign to supply life-saving equipment to the colony of Nova Scotia. The day after the new equipment arrived on the island, a ship sank, and more than 180 people were saved.
- After the civil war, she raised funds for establishing the national monument to deceased soldiers at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. She also contributed to the foundation of a fountain for thirsty horses at the Boston Custom Square.
- She was named President of Life of the Army Nurses Association.
- A bronze bust of her stands at the Massachusetts State House.
- The USS Dorothea L. Dix transport ship was named in her honor.
- The Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center was renamed in her honor.
- She is commemorated in a bronze medallion in the Extra Mile memorial in Washington, DC.
- Dix embarked on a two-year journey throughout Massachusetts.
- Two national flags for her service during the Civil War (1866)
- Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1979)
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Dorothea DixProf. Allison discusses mental illness, as well as the life and accomplishments of Dorothea Dix, a teacher and mental health reformer
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