Dorothea Dix


Dorothea was born in Hampden, Maine, but at the age of twelve she ran away to her grandmotherís home in Boston to escape her alcoholic family and abusive father. Seven years later, she opened a school in Boston, which was funded by wealthy families, and she soon began to teach poor and neglected children as well, coming to their homes to tutor them. Unfortunately, however, her health declined significantly around 1824, and she spent the next six years holed away while she wrote books of devotions and stories for children. In 1831, her health by this time greatly improved, Dorothea established a model school for girls, which she ran until she became ill again in 1836. This time, she travelled to England in search of cure, and there she met the Rathbones, a family of Quakers and prominent social workers who believed that the government should involve itself directly in affairs of social welfare. The Rathbone family invited Dorothea to stay for a year at their mansion in Liverpool, where she was exposed to the British lunacy reform movement, an organization that looked to improve the treatment of patients in asylums.

Upon her return to America, Dorothea immediately set out on a statewide investigation of the asylum conditions in Massachusetts, where she found the patients chained, naked, and beaten into submission. She published her full results in a report sent to the state legislature, which resulted in a bill to expand the stateís mental hospital. Dorothea then took her plea to other states, traveling from New Hampshire to Louisiana, documenting the treatment of lunatics and working with committees to draft the legislation needed to appropriate more money toward building asylums. Her work culminated in the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane, which set aside over 15,000 square miles of Federal land for the benefit of the insane. President Franklin Pierce, however, vetoed the bill, proclaiming social welfare to be the concern of individual states. Stung by her defeat, Dorothea returned to England for a time.

During the Civil War, Dorothea served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army, but she feuded with Army doctors over control of facilities and the right to hire and fire volunteers, and after her responsibilities were reduced she resigned. Yet despite her dissatisfaction, she was remembered by the Confederates for providing equal care to the wounded of both armies. After the war, Dorothea once again took up her cause of providing better health care for the disabled and mentally ill, and, though quite sick herself, she corresponded with officials from England to Japan until her death in 1887.

Key events during the life of Dorothea Dix:

Born in Hampden, Maine.
Ran away to her grandmotherís home in Boston.
Opened a school in Boston.
Health declined greatly; she spent these years writing childrenís books.
Established a model school for girls.
Grew ill again, this time travelling to England in search of a cure.
  Met the Rathbone family, who invited her to live with them for a year.
Returned to America.
  Conducted an investigation into the asylums of Massachusetts.
Went to Illinois to study its treatment of the insane, but grew ill again.
Called for healthcare reform in North Carolina.
Her Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane was vetoed by President Pierce.
  Travelled to England, where she conducted investigations of Scotlandís madhouses.
Served as Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War.
Moved into the New Jersey State Hospital.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Wonderful Woman  in  Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans  by  Edward Eggleston
Dorothea Dix  in  Heroes of Progress in America  by  Charles Morris

Short Biography
Franklin Pierce 14th president of the United States, and one of the worst presidents in history.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Early leader in the female suffrage, and temperance movement.
William Lloyd Garrison Prominent abolitionist, well-known as the publisher of the Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper.