Dix, Dorothea Lynde

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Dix, Dorothea Lynde

Dorothea Lynde Dix was a remarkably fore-sighted educator and social reformer who made major contributions to the welfare of persons with mental illness, prisoners, and injured Civil War soldiers. Dix was born on April 4, 1802, in Hampden, Maine. Her father, Joseph Dix, was an alcoholic and circuit-riding Methodist preacher who required young Dorothea to spend her time laboriously stitching and pasting the thick religious tracts he wrote and sold during his travels. Although considered a strict and sometimes abusive father, Joseph Dix taught his daughter to read and write at an early age. Dix, in turn, taught reading and writing to her two younger brothers. Her mother, Mary (Bigelow) Dix, suffered from depression that made it difficult for her to care for her three children.

At age 12, Dix lived briefly with her father's mother in Boston and then moved in with an aunt in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although her grandmother helped with her education, Dix had little formal training. Gifted with strong beliefs and intellectual abilities, Dix, at age 14, began teaching young girls a rigorous curriculum that she had created with emphasis on the natural sciences and ethical responsibilities. In 1821, Dix moved back to Boston and opened a private school on property belonging to her grandmother.

Dix combined teaching with a prolific schedule of writing books and religious tracts, including Meditations for Private Hours (1828), The Garland of Flora (1829), and American Moral Tales for Young Persons (1832). One of her best known and most-often reprinted publications was Conversations on Common Things, which was published in 1824 as a guide to help parents answer everyday questions, such as "Why do we call this day Monday?" and "What is tin?"

"Man is not made better by being degraded;he is seldom restrained from crime by harsh measures, except the principle of fear predominates in his character;and then he is never made radically better for its influence."
—Dorothea Dix

After her father's death in 1821, Dix used her income to support her mother and her two younger brothers who had come to live with her in Boston. In addition to the private school she ran, Dix also conducted free evening classes for indigent children. She read prodigiously, continued to study the natural sciences as well as history and literature, attended public lectures, and met the leading members of Boston's intellectual and religious communities. She made the acquaintance of many Unitarians and became friends with William Ellery Channing, the famed pastor of Unitarian Federal Street Church in Boston and his wife Julia Allen Channing.

Never robust, Dix suffered intermittently from depression and chronic upper respiratory infections variously attributed to tuberculosis and malaria. Her illnesses would flare up from time to time, exacerbated by the demanding schedule she kept and she developed a pattern of cutting back briefly on her work until she was able to resume her tasks. In 1836, Dix broke down while trying to care for her ill grandmother in addition to all her other duties and it became clear that she would need to take an extended period of rest.

She closed her school and sailed to Europe where she stayed in Liverpool, England, with William Rathbone and his wife who were friends of the Channings. Rathbone was a prominent humanitarian and philanthropist who introduced Dix to a number of social welfare advocates including prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and William Tuke, a Quaker who had opened the York Retreat for the Mentally Disordered and who pioneered the theory of humane treatment for persons with mental illness.

While Dix was in England, both her mother and her grandmother died, the latter leaving Dix a large inheritance. The income from the inheritance and royalties from her books were sufficient to give Dix a comfortable living for the rest of her life. Dix returned to Boston in 1838 and spent several years visiting friends and family members and traveling to various points of interest.

In 1841, a ministerial student asked Dix to teach a Sunday school class to a group of women incarcerated in the East Cambridge Jail in Massachusetts. Her first visit to the jail marked a turning point in her life. After teaching the class, Dix toured the jail. On the lower level she found the "dungeon cells" that housed inmates considered to be insane. Dix was horrified to find men, women, and children, half-naked and underfed, chained to walls, and forced to sleep on the floors of the filthy unlit cells.

Dix immediately took action. She surveyed every jail, poorhouse, and prison in Massachusetts. In 1843, she delivered a report to the Massachusetts state legislature. Legislators and others at first criticized the report and denied the charges. When Dix's charges were sustained by independent observations, the legislature allocated funds to expand the State Mental Hospital at Worcester.

Dix continued her investigations in other states, first in New England and eventually nationwide. Dix traveled the country systematically collecting data that she would then present in reports (called "memorials") to various state legislatures. Seeking the establishment of state-supported institutions, Dix would lobby state officials and influential persons and attempt to raise a public outcry over the dreadful conditions she had found.

Until Dix began her campaign to better the lives of persons with mental illness, the popular assumption was that persons who were insane were incurable and did not feel deprivation in the same way as ordinary persons. Dix was among the first to espouse the theory that insanity was treatable and that better living conditions could do much to help persons with mental illness. In three years, the indefatigable Dix traveled over 30,000 miles crusading for her cause. Her labors proved highly successful. In 1843, when she delivered her first memorial, there were 13 mental institutions in the United States. Several decades later, that number had grown to 123 with Dix helping to found 32 of them. In addition, Dix's efforts played a major part in the founding of 15 schools for what were then called the "feeble-minded," a school for blind persons, and a number of training schools for nurses.

Buoyed by her success, Dix next set out to accomplish her goal of persuading Congress to set aside five million acres in federal land grants; the idea was that income from the land trusts would be used to endow state mental hospitals. In 1854, Congress passed the legislation she sought. Although President Millard Fillmore favored the bill, it did not reach his desk before the end of his term. The bill was vetoed by Fill-more's successor, President Franklin Pierce, thus dashing the hopes of Dix and her supporters of establishing federal funding for mentally ill persons. Eventually, in 1855, Congress provided funds for the founding of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., which remains the oldest large mental hospital that is federally funded.

Worn out and discouraged, Dix traveled to Europe to rest. Instead, she found herself investigating the same deplorable conditions in prisons and poorhouses in numerous European countries and once again began campaigning for, and achieving, many reforms. Throughout the 1850s, Dix worked for humanitarian reform in the United States and Europe as well in Canada, Russia, and Japan.

In 1845, Dix published a treatise entitled Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States, in which she advocated for progressive reforms for ordinary prisoners including the separation of prisoners according to the type of offense committed and the need for education of prisoners.

In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, the 59-year-old Dix volunteered her services and was made superintendent of women nurses for the Union Army. Although she worked until 1866 helping to organize women volunteers, establish hospitals, and raise funds, her capabilities as an administrator were questioned and her tenure was viewed as only partially successful.

Dix resumed her work with persons with mental illness in 1867. She found many problems including rising immigration rates, state treasuries depleted by the war, a growing population of indigent persons with mental illness, and state legislatures that had new priorities. She continued her fight until ill health forced her to stop. In 1881, Dix took up residence in the guest quarters of the Trenton, New Jersey, state hospital she had helped found. She lived there until her death on July 17, 1887.

Further readings

Brown, Thomas J. 1998. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Dix, Dorothea. 1999. Asylum, Prison, and Poorhouse: The Writings and Reform Work of Dorothea Dix in Illinois. Edited by David L. Lightner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

——. 1845. Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States. Edited by Leonard D. Savitz. Reprint, Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1984.