A.D. 1802-1887

One of the most wonderful women of the nineteenth century was Dorothea L. Dix. Though she was a frail and overworked woman, she had a gentle, loving disposition, but with a will like steel.  She worked hard against apathy and other fearful odds while working for the betterment of the imprisoned and mentally ill, and she never once failed.

Dorothea was born at Hampden, Maine the daughter of Mary Bigelow and Joseph Dix.  Her family passed down a strong social conscious to the young girl along with an interest in healing and philanthropy.

Born into a family of modest means, she helped support her family by running a school for young children in Boston when she was nineteen years old, and over the next few years published several children’s books. Illness forced her to close the school, and in an attempt to restore her health she went on an lengthy trip to England. There she came to know many English reformers, and began to take interest in humanitarian causes.

By the late 1830’s Boston, where she now lived, was full of humanitarian people. Dorothea was among those who wanted to better society.  In 1841, hearing that a Sunday-school teacher was needed in the East Cambridge House of Correction, she volunteered to teach a class of twenty women who were criminals and drunkards.

When she visited the jail she found some mentally ill people confined in unheated rooms.  In order to correct the abuse she witnessed, Dorothea had to bring the matter into court.  Armed with a shocking array of facts, she petitioned the legislature “in behalf of the insane paupers confined within the Commonwealth in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens; chained, naked, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience.” Because of her efforts, these abuses were largely corrected in Massachusetts, encouraging her to undertake reform in other states.  New Jersey was her next field, where by careful investigation and wise presentation, she won victories for the insane and criminals.

It is amazing that in less than four years’ work she visited and investigated eighteen states prisons, three hundred county jails and houses of correction, and more than five hundred almshouses.  Everywhere she met sights which were sickening and horrible, but though weak in body and at times sick, she bravely toiled on.

Miss Dix visited Halifax and Toronto, brought reform to Scotland,  and visited hospitals in Norway, Holland, Italy, Russia, and Greece.  She awakened the slumbering moral sense of the people and the treatment of the inmates of asylums and prisons was revolutionized.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in America, she gave herself to the work of nursing in the army and was made chief of army nurses.  What Florence Nightingale was to the Crimean War, the same was Dorothea Dix to the Union Army during the Civil War. She was sixty-three years old and weighed only ninety-five pounds when the war was over.  She remained in Washington during the heat of the summer to visit hospitals and carry on a vast correspondence in her attempt to locate missing sons, fathers, husbands, and sweethearts.  She worked at this until the last weeks of 1866.

For the next fifteen years she traveled the country working in the behalf of the mentally ill.  Many of the institutions she had helped to establish suffered neglect during the war, prompting her to say:  “It would seem all my work is to be done over.”

For the last fifty years of her life, Dorothea had no home and often lived in the quarters of the hospitals she founded.  In 1882 she became quite ill and after five years of suffering she died at Trenton Asylum, which was offered to her as a retreat and she lovingly called it her “firstborn child”.  She was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston.

The life of Dorothea Lynde Dix  was one of great love and sacrifice on behalf of mankind.  Her life was an expression of  the Christian way of  life at its very best.