Dorothea Lynde Dix was one of the most influential social reformers of the nineteenth century. She was born on 4th April, 1802, in the state of Maine. Daughter of Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow, Dorothea Dix dedicated her life for the welfare, security and fair treatment of mentally disabled people. A teacher turned social activist, Dorothea Dix never married and relentlessly fought for the insane. Her only objective was to ensure that the insane get treated in a dignified manner, that their living conditions are humane and that they are not ostracized in any way.
1. Early Life of Dorothea Dix
Dorothea Dix was born to a dysfunctional family. She did not get the motherly care and her father was abusive. It was during her growing up years that she developed her sensitivity that would later get channeled in her fight against the inhuman conditions and inhuman treatment that were prevalent in mental institutions. People with psychological conditions were treated in a cruel and undignified manner back then. Her first stint with such mistreatment was at a local jail where she was supposed to teach the inmates but got exposed to the cruelties that were being inflicted upon those suffering from an array of mental health conditions. She made it her mission to ensure the welfare of those suffering from any type of mental, cognitive or psychological condition.
2. Early Career of Dorothea Dix
Dorothea Dix started a school in Boston, taught the neglected children of poor families and those who did not even have proper families. She published ‘Conversations on Common Things’ in 1824. In 1831, she started a girls’ school. Due to failing health, she went to England, recuperated and returned in 1841. She started working with the inmates, teaching them at a prison in East Cambridge. There, she witnessed that mentally challenged people were treated like criminals. They were kept in cells that were beyond imagination, the stink and lack of heat made the conditions unlivable.
3. Championing Rights of the Insane
Dorothea Dix wrote to the legislature of Massachusetts demanding the reformation of the living conditions of the mentally challenged and clinically insane. The report was titled ‘Memorial’ and it was presented by Senator Joseph Dodd. Her report was endorsed by many and there were quite a few who criticized the demands. She kept on writing letters. She came out with editorials. She was relentless in her pursuit till a bill was proposed and eventually passed as a piece of legislation in March, 1845.
Her fight did not end there. She went to Louisiana, studied how the insane were treated and kept there, she continued her journey to many other states and wrote her reports depicting how inhumanly the insane were treated. She was instrumental in setting up of the first state run mental hospital in Illinois. Her journey took her to North Carolina where she succeeded in influencing the formation of North Carolina State Medical Society. That led to the setting up of an institute in Raleigh in 1856. It was also named after her.
4. Superintendent of Army Nurses
Owing to her accomplishments and proven sensibilities, Dorothea Dix was inducted by the Union Army as the Superintendent of Army Nurses in 1861. She worked for four years and resigned after she could not come to terms with the way Army doctors worked.
5. Legacy of Dorothea Dix
History remembers Dorothea Dix as the most efficient, effective and accomplished champion of humanitarian reform in the United States of America. She was singlehandedly responsible in reforming the American mental institutions during the 19th century. She succeeded in compelling the legislatures to bring in reforms that saw the setting up of mental institutes and hospitals across the country, including New York, North Carolina, New Jersey and Maryland.
The life and legacy of Dorothea Dix are interesting pieces of modern history, especially American history. Very few social activists or civil rights champions had succeeded in accomplishing as much as her. Many movements and revolutions did not fructify until a much later generation. Whether it was abolition of slavery or voting rights for women, abolishing racial discrimination or the present minimum wage law, all major reforms have taken decades if not a century to come into effect. Dorothea Dix had achieved more than what most of her likes, in the past and after her, had accomplished.
Dorothea Dix did not have a very elaborate personal life. She had few friends and many acquaintances, most of whom were famous and endorsed her social work. She was engaged once but she wanted to focus on her social commitments and activism which led her to breaking up. She did not get married ever to keep up with her unwavering and relentless pursuit for the welfare of the insane. Dorothea Dix died at the age of eight five in 1887. She was honored by the United States Postal Service in 1983. They issued a Dorothea Dix Great Americans series postage stamp.