About Dorothea Lynde Dix
Dorothea Lynde Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) was an American activist on behalf of the indigent insane who, through a vigorous program of lobbying state legislatures and the United States Congress, created the first generation of American mental asylums. During the Civil War, she served as Superintendent of Army Nurses.
Family and early career
She was born in the town of Hampden, Maine, and grew up first in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then in her wealthy grandmother's home in Boston. She fled there at the age of twelve, to get away from her alcoholic family and abusive father. She was the first child of three born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow. Her father was an itinerant worker. From an early age, Dorothea was a caregiver to her two younger brothers, and later, to her grandmother. About 1821, while still in her teens, she opened a school in Boston, which was patronized by the well-to-do families. Soon afterwards she also began teaching poor and neglected children at home. But her health broke down, and from 1824 to 1830 she was chiefly occupied with the writing of books of devotion and stories for children. Her Conversations on Common Things (1824) had reached its sixtieth edition by 1869. In 1831 she established in Boston a model school for girls, and conducted this successfully until 1836, when her health again failed.
During this time, she met her second cousin, Edward Bangs, who assisted her in setting up a school for young women. Edward fell in love with her and soon proposed, but because of memories of her parents' unsuccessful marriage, she broke off the engagement. She never married. Instead, she devoted her life to teaching and to serving others.
In hopes of a cure, in 1836 she traveled to England, where she had the good fortune to meet the Rathbone family, who invited her to spend a year as their guest at Greenbank, their ancestral mansion in Liverpool. The Rathbones were Quakers and prominent social reformers, and at Greenbank, Dix met men and women who believed that government should play a direct, active role in social welfare. She was also exposed to the British lunacy reform movement, whose methods involved detailed investigations of madhouses and asylums, the results of which were published in reports to the House of Commons.
After she returned to America, in 1840-41, Dix conducted a statewide investigation of how her home state of Massachusetts cared for the insane poor. In most cases, towns contracted with local individuals to care for people with mental disorders who could not care for themselves, and who lacked family and friends to provide for them. Unregulated and underfunded, this system produced widespread abuse. After her survey, Dix published the results in a fiery report, a Memorial, to the state legislature. "I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." The outcome of her lobbying was a bill to expand the state's mental hospital in Worcester.
Henceforth, Dix traveled from New Hampshire to Louisiana, documenting the condition of pauper lunatics, publishing memorials to state legislatures, and devoting enormous personal energy to working with committees to draft the enabling legislation and appropriations bills needed to build asylums. In 1846, Dix travelled to Illinois to study its treatment of mental illness. She beame ill and spent the winter of 1846 in Springfield, Illinois recovering, but her report was ready for the January 1847 legislative session, which promptly adopted legislation establishing Illinois first state mental hospital. In 1848, Dorothea Dix visited North Carolina and called for reform in the care of mentally ill patients. In 1849, when the North Carolina State Medical Society was formed, the construction of an institution in the capital, Raleigh, for the care of mentally ill patients was authorized. The hospital, named in honor of Dorothea Dix, opened in 1856. She was instrumental in the founding of the first public mental hospital in Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg State Hospital, and later in establishing its library and reading room in 1853.
The culmination of her work was the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane, legislation to set aside 12,225,000 acres (49,473 km2) of Federal land (10,000,000 acres for the benefit of the insane and the remainder for the "blind, deaf, and dumb"), with proceeds from its sale distributed to the states to build and maintain asylums. Dix's land bill passed both houses of Congress, but in 1854 President Franklin Pierce vetoed it, arguing that the federal government should not commit itself to social welfare, which was properly the responsibility of the states. Stung by the defeat of her land bill, in 1854-1855 Dix traveled to England and Europe, where she reconnected with the Rathbones and conducted investigations of Scotland's madhouses that precipitated the Scottish Lunacy Commission.
Civil War and later years
During the Civil War, Dix was appointed Superintendent of Union Army Nurses. Unfortunately, the qualities that made her a successful crusader—independence and single-minded zeal—did not lend themselves to managing a large organization of female nurses. At odds with Army doctors, she was gradually relieved of real responsibility and would consider this chapter in her career a failure. However, her even-handed caring for Union and Confederate wounded alike, which may not have endeared her to Radical Republicans, assured her memory in the South.
Her nurses provided what was often the only care available in the field to Confederate wounded. In 1881, Dix moved into the New Jersey State Hospital, Morris Plains, where the state legislature designated a suite for her private use as long as she lived. An invalid, yet still managing to correspond with people from England to Japan, she died on July 17, 1887. Dix was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She has been honored by the United States Postal Service with a 1¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.
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