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Dorothy Dix, the voice crying out in the wilderness for the mentally ill

Updated on September 7, 2009
Dorothea Dix
Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix was an exceptional humanitarian and reformer, whose tireless career not only transformed the treatment of mentally ill patients and prison inmates; but also kicked down the doors of sexism preventing women from serving in the United States military. Yet, the full extent of her efforts may never be appreciated due to her humility. While she lived, she refused to have any account of her life glorified. She once stated, “I am not ambitious of nominal distinctions and notoriety is my special aversion.” Fortunately, through her letters to friends, personal documentation and legal documents, many have been able to present a vivid picture of this remarkable soul.

Born in Hamden, Main on April 4, 1802 and raised in Worcester Massachusetts, life was no crystal stair for Ms. Dix. She was the oldest of three children born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow. Her father was an alcoholic prone to fanatical religiosity and abusive towards her, demanding that she cut and paste religious tracts together for his evangelistic crusades on the road. Her mother suffered from depression, leading to a gloomy home life in which she assumed the role of motherhood for her younger siblings. She would often speak of never knowing childhood, as a result. She would eventually run away to live with her wealthy grandmother in Boston Massachusetts.

The abuse, neglect and poverty of her early childhood, cultivated an unconquerable spirit akin to that of a mature woman. She assumed the role of adulthood early on, as a protector of her younger siblings. The escape to her grandmother was more so embedded in a desire for the required education needed to independently care for her younger siblings. Unfortunately, this premature adult persona resulted in clashes with a grandmother who saw her as a child in need of proper social graces. Luckily, her grandmother intervened, sending her son and his wife to live with relatives and assuming guardianship of the younger siblings. Dorothea was sent to live with her grandaunt, who forged a bond with Dorothea that would aid in healing some of the wounds inflicted on her inner child. Although, one wound in particular would remain an open wound that she would later lead to a life of loneliness. The relationship between her mother and father would be remembered as tumultuous, negligent and filled with hurt; forever symbolizing marriage. She never married fearing, she would turn into her parents.

While under the care of her aunt, who was also wealthy, she later met a second cousin named Edward who assisted her in establishing a private school for girls. At the time, young girls were not allowed to attend public schools but were allowed to attend privately run schools by other women. He located a site and within a short time, she began teaching at the age of fourteen years old. Not much older than her students, she felt the need to present an older appearance, complete with long sleeved shirts and long skirts. However, there was no need as her stern demeanor commanded the respect naturally.

She would forever be grateful to her cousin for his support but was later shocked when he proclaimed his love for her and proposed marriage. She would later accept but made no definite date for the ceremony. After her father passed away, she was reminded of the relationship between her parents and permanently declined.

Dorothea continued on teaching and working tirelessly to cultivate he own education in preparation for a new venture. Her desire was to open another school, which she planned to do so in her grandmother's mansion. In addition to this, she also resumed direct care of her siblings and began writing books for children. Between the years of 1822 through 1836, her life had been dedicated to others until one day, she suffered a breakdown. She succumbed to a “mysterious” illness which we now know as tuberculosis and was extremely exhausted. Such that her physician ordered her to rest overseas in England.

Unfortunately, Ms. Dix was unable to rest for very long and in 1841 began the start of a new career. While in England, she one day overheard a conversation between two gentleman about the way the “prisoners and lunatics” were living in the East Cambridge jail. The conversation was filled with so much indignation until she volunteered to teach in an East Cambridge Jail just to see it for herself. The deplorable conditions she witnessed during her first visit changed her life forever. She immediately began a life of advocacy for those in the prisons and mental health systems in England and later the United States. She visited various institutions and later pleaded their cases before the court system. Her compelling convictions brought about change in the treatment of the mentally challenged, mentally ill and incarcerated. Prior to her work, there was no separation between criminals based on offense. They laid there in cramped quarters in vomit, and their own excrement in unheated facilities. The mentally ill were often cared for by private citizens with huge chains around their necks and beaten when their behavior failed to conform. These are just a few of the many examples she witnessed in her visits. Considered a radical in her time, she founded the concept of mental institutions, libraries in prisons, and took those ideas for change successfully to Europe to be implemented there as well.

When the civil war broke out in 1859, Ms. Dix felt a call to render aid to the wounded and diseased soldiers taking part in the war, and volunteered for service. Prior to that, females were not allowed to render medical aid in battle. Only male medics were thought to be suitable for such tasks but Ms. Dix once again, took on the giants. Although close to sixty years old, she was appointed superintendent of nurses and filled the ranks with serious minded, plain looking volunteers over the age of thirty. Nicknamed “Dragon Dix” she ruled with a the same autocratic style that served her best in prior years, although it was not viewed as an admirable trait. She wasn't very popular or well liked among generals or peers because of her disdain for inefficiency and outspokenness. She would often take on tasks by herself and ignore direct orders, that made no sense. Yet, she was honorable based on her dedication to the wounded soldiers both Union and confederate. The needs of the soldier came above all; setting precedence for the motto and creed of the United States Medical corp, “trained to save.” Many view her service in the military as ineffective but she proved that women can serve, thereby establishing the standard for the womens army corp, many years later.

After the war, Ms. Dix picked up where she left off in her advocacy for the sick and shut in. The war devastated many hospitals in the south. Yet she feared the welcome once rendered to her prior to the war had faded as a result of her unpopular position in the army. Nevertheless, she found herself once again working in the role, she knew and was appreciated best and her legacy continued untouched; making further improvements for the greater cause of humanity. She continued her service until her death on July 17, 1887.


Tiffany, F. (1891). Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Boston: Houghton Mufflin.Marshall, H.E. (1937). Dorothea Dix, forgotten Samaritan. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.


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