Dorothea Dix

Advocate for the Mentally Ill & Nursing Supervisor in the Civil War

Dorothea Dix, about 1850
Dorothea Dix, about 1850. MPI/Getty Images

Dorothea Dix was born in Maine in 1802.  Her father was a minister, and he and his wife raised Dorothea and her two younger brothers in poverty, sometimes sending Dorothea to Boston to her grandparents.

After studying at home, Dorothea Dix became a teacher when she was 14 years old.  When she was 19 she started her own girls’ school in Boston.  William Ellery Channing, a leading Boston minister, sent his daughters to the school, and she became close to the family.  She also became interested in the Unitarianism of Channing.  As a teacher, she was known for strictness.  She used her grandmother’s home for another school, and also started a free school, supported by donations, for poor children.

Struggling With Her Health

At 25 Dorothea Dix became ill with tuberculosis, a chronic lung disease.  She quit teaching and focused on writing while she was recovering, writing mainly for children.  The Channing family took her with them on retreat and on vacations, including to St. Croix.  Dix, feeling somewhat better, returned to teaching after a few years, adding into her commitments the care of her grandmother.  Her health again seriously threatened, she went to London in hopes that would help her recovery.  She was frustrated by her ill health, writing “There is so much to do….”

While she was in England, she became familiar with efforts at prison reform and better treatment of the mentally ill.  She returned to Boston in 1837 after her grandmother died and left her an inheritance that allowed her to focus on her health, but now with an idea in mind of what to do with her life after her recovery.

Choosing a Path to Reform

In 1841, feeling strong and healthy, Dorothea Dix visited a women’s jail in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, to teach Sunday School.  She had heard of awful conditions there. She investigated and was especially horrified at how women declared insane were being treated.

With the help of William Ellery Channing, she began working with well-known male reformers, including Charles Sumner (an abolitionist who would become a Senator), and with Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe, both educators of some renown.  For a year and a half Dix visited prisons and places where the mentally ill were kept, often in cages or chained and often abused.

Samuel Gridley Howe (husband of Juliet Ward Howe) supported her efforts by publishing about the need for reform of the care of the mentally ill, and Dix decided she had a cause to devote herself to.  She wrote to the state legislators calling for specific reforms, and detailing the conditions she had documented.  In Massachusetts first, then in other states including New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee and Kentucky, she advocated for legislative reforms.  In her efforts to document, she became one of the first reformers to take social statistics seriously.

In Providence, an article she wrote on the topic generated a large donation of $40,000 from a local businessman, and she was able to use this to move some of those imprisoned for mental “incompetence” to a better situation. In New Jersey and then in Pennsylvania, she won approval of new hospitals for the mentally ill.

Federal and International Efforts

By 1848, Dix had decided that reform needed to be federal.  After initial failure she got a bill through Congress to fund efforts to support people who were disabled or mentally ill, but President Pierce vetoed it.

With a visit to England, during which she saw Florence Nightingale’s work, Dix was able to enlist Queen Victoria in studying the conditions there of the mentally ill, and won improvements in the asylums.  She moved on to working in many countries in England, and even convinced the Pope to build a new institution for the mentally ill.

In 1856, Dix returned to America and worked for five more years advocating for funds for the mentally ill, both at federal and state levels.

Civil War

In 1861, with the opening of the American Civil War, Dix turned her efforts to military nursing.  In June of 1861, the U.S. Army appointed her as superintendent of Army nurses.  She tried to model nursing care on that of Florence Nightingale’s famous work in the Crimean War. She worked to train young women who volunteered for nursing duty.  She fought doggedly for good medical care, often coming into conflict with the physicians and surgeons.  She was recognized in 1866 by the Secretary of war for her extraordinary service.

Later Life

After the Civil War, Dix again devoted herself to advocating for the mentally ill. She died at age 79 in New Jersey, in the July of 1887.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Dorothea Dix." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Dorothea Dix. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Dorothea Dix." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).