Who was Dorothea Dix?
Dorothea Dix was an American teacher and social activist who dedicated her life to secure the right to a dignified life for the insane. During her time the insane were treated in the most undignified and cruel way, often confined to prisons and beaten to make them obey orders. Their emotional needs were ignored and they were regarded as lesser living beings who were not accorded even the basic amenities to live. Dix was one of the first people who lobbied for their rights and played an instrumental role in getting mental asylums established all over the U.S. She also traveled to other countries to fight for this cause and worked hard to make the government and society realize the importance of treating the insane humanely. As a child she grew up in a dysfunctional family with an emotionally absent mother and an abusive father. Thus she developed sensitivity to the hardships others suffered as she herself had been subjected to much abuse as a little girl. She became a teacher and while teaching the inmates at a local jail she became aware of the cruelties inflicted upon the insane. From then on, ensuring the welfare of the mentally unstable became her life’s aim.
Dix opened a school in Boston in 1821. This school was primarily for children of wealthy parents though she used to teach poor and neglected children in her free time. However, she also began to suffer from poor health which affected her teaching.
When she was not well enough to teach, she would remain in her room and write textbooks and devotional books for children. Her book ‘Conversations on Common Things’ was published in 1824.
She started teaching again in 1831 and established a school for girls. For the next five years she continued teaching but by the end of 1836 she began to feel very ill. Her health was so poor that she had to quit teaching and go to England to recuperate.
She returned to America in 1841 and took a job of teaching inmates in an East Cambridge prison. She was shocked by what she saw there—the mentally unstable were kept with the hardened criminals, there was no heating, the place was stinking and the living conditions were horrible.
Appalled by what she witnessed she went to the legislature of Massachusetts and demanded that the living conditions of the insane be reformed. She presented to the legislature a report she had made after researching on the horrible conditions the inmates were kept in.
The report, called ‘Memorial’ was presented by her supporter, Joseph Dodd who was in the Senate, to the Legislature of New Jersey in 1845. Even though her demands for reforms found many supporters, there were also some critics who opposed it.
Dix was not disheartened and continued writing letters and editorials and championed for the cause along with her supporters. Her unrelenting work finally bore fruit when the bill proposing reforms was finally passed in March 1845.
She traveled to Louisiana where also she studied the conditions of the lunatics. She went to several states to research on the mental illnesses and the ways the patients were treated. She convinced the Legislation of Illinois to set up the state’s first mental hospital.
She went to North Carolina and influenced the forming of the North Carolina State Medical Society in 1849. An institution in Raleigh was opened in 1856 for the care of mentally ill patients which was named in her honor.
She was appointed the Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army in 1861. However she was not much successful in this position and found herself at odds with several parties like the Army doctors. She resigned in 1865.
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Described as "the most effective advocate of humanitarian reform in American mental institutions during the nineteenth century", Dix was a woman who played a key role in establishing mental hospitals in various places in America including New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Maryland.
Personal Life & Legacy
She had an ardent admirer in her second cousin Edward Bangs who had proposed marriage to her. She was engaged to him for some time though she broke off the engagement later on to focus on her social work. She never married.
She lived a long and productive life, most of which was spent in serving the society. She died in 1887 at the age of 85.
The United States Postal Service honored her by issuing a Dorothea Dix Great Americans series postage stamp in 1983.