Dorothea Dix

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Dorothea Dix



Born: Dorothea Lynde Dix on April 4, 1802 in Hampden, Maine


Her family life can be described as abusive and nonexistent. Her mother was not in good mental health and her father was an abusive alcoholic. Almost immediately Dorothea began to care for her smaller brothers. Later in life she commented that "I never knew childhood" (Schlaifer, 1991).

Dorothea planned on being a schoolteacher. In the fall of 1816, at age fifteen, she faced her first twenty pupils between the ages of six and eight. From 1822-1836 Dorothea managed to teach her two classes and began writing several books for children.

Dorothea's second career began when she was thirty-nine years old. In March of 1841 she entered the East Cambridge Jail. She had volunteered to teach a Sunday School class for women inmates. Upon entering the jail she witnessed such horrible images that her life, from that point on, was changed forever. When asked why the jail was in these conditions her answer was, "the insane do not feel heat or cold". After witnessing these conditions she immediately took the matter to the courts and after a serious of battles finally won. Dorothea then proceeded to visit jails and almshouses, where the mentally ill were housed, in other parts of Boston and soon her investigations extended over the entire state of Massachusetts.

After accomplishing much, she decided to go after her dream in 1848. She sent a document to the United States Congress asking that five million acres be set aside and to be used for the care of the mentally ill. However, with this request she was way ahead of her time by advocating a role for the national government in the care of the disadvantaged mentally ill. In 1854 the bill passed and was approved by both houses but was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. In 1854 she continued to travel and investigate many states she had missed before. However at the outbreak of the Civil War she put her energies into being the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses.

Dix finally retired at age 79. Depressed by deteriorating accommodations and programs for the insane, she did not talk about her work; nor would she cooperate with those who inquired about her life and career. She died in 1887 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Last Modified: Thursday May 20, 2010


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