WASHINGTON, March 22, 2012 - March is Women in History month and Dorothea Dix is a mouse that roared.
After witnessing a gross injustice, Dorothea Dix took on U.S. and Canadian legislators to advocate for people who were politically and economically powerless. She worked to relieve the suffering of many, though she could have spent the second half of her life living comfortably without lifting a finger.
Dorothea Dix was born 1802 to an itinerant Methodist preacher, and a mother thought to be “slow.” The Dix’s were impoverished and the father, Joseph, was an abusive alcoholic. However, he did teach his daughter to read and write. Dorothea functioned as mother and father to her two younger brothers.
At the age of 12, Dix (and her brothers) went to live with their grandmother in Boston. Dorothea did not warm up to her grandmother’s wealthy lifestyle. Grandma was more than a tad unhappy when Dorothea gave some of her new clothes to poor children. Dorothea moved in with her great aunt in Worcester, Massachusetts when she was 14.
Now, there is some romance in Dix’s life; almost.
Dix’s second cousin, Edward Bangs, met Dorothea at a party. He helped Dix set up a school for girls in 1816. The students were six to eight years old and though the school was a success it closed after three years. Why? Edward told Dorothea he loved her. She closed up shop and moved back to Boston.
Dorothea accepted Edward’s marriage proposal eventually, but was haunted by memories of her parent’s unhappy life together. After her father died, Dorothea broke the engagement and dedicated herself to educating young women. She opened an elementary school in 1821 and taught there until taken ill with tuberculosis.
To fast-forward from 1824 through 1841, Dorothea convalesced, wrote the book Conversations on Common Things and children’s stories, lost her mother and grandmother, ran a secondary school in her home, spent a couple years in England regaining her health, and returned to Boston.
Though not fully recovered on returning to the U.S., there was a pleasant surprise waiting for her. She had inherited enough money to curl up and remain a semi-invalid the rest of her days, but inactivity was not part of Dix’s temperament.
This is the point in Dorothea Dix’s life that those in the mental health field start reaping the benefit of her organizational and political skills.
At the East Cambridge House of Correction in Massachusetts, Dix started a Sunday school class in 1841. That is where she first observed the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill. She was appalled to see men, women, and children in jail with hardened criminals. They had no heat and lived in filth, some chained to a wall, some unclothed, and others kept in line with flogging.
For two years, Dorothea visited other institutions in Massachusetts, and discovered the same deplorable conditions for the mentally ill. She sent a thorough report of what she observed to the state legislature, instigating the enlargement of the Worcester Insane Asylum (photo above). Dix then continued this work, starting with New York and Rhode Island, and kept going for 40 more years.
A Congressional bill giving the states 12,250,000 acres of land for the welfare of those blind, deaf, dumb, and insane was passed in 1854, but nixed by President Franklin Pierce. Dix was largely responsible for this bill and after the veto she went to England. There, she brought about reforms for the mentally ill throughout Europe, and in Russia, Japan, and the Netherlands.
Dorothea was appointed by the Federal government to be superintendent of women nurses during the Civil War. This position proved difficult for Dix, and for those under her. (Some people are not meant for middle management.) Dorothea was by now a spinster pushing 60 and said to have a dour personality; maybe she was just focused.
A quote from then Treasurer of the Sanitary Commission, George Templeton Strong, gives us a sense of how Dix was viewed as a reformer.
“She is energetic, benevolent, unselfish, and a mild case of monomania. Working on her own hook, she does good, but no one can cooperate with her, for she belongs to the class of comets and can be subdued into relations with no system whatever.”
(That explains her difficulty as superintendent of nurses.)
Along the way, Dorothea had help from one old friend, and from a powerful new one. Edward Bangs helped in the fight to establish new mental health institutions, and she was deeply respected by President Millard Fillmore. Fillmore considered Dorothea a devoted and loyal friend and supported her reform endeavors. Alas, no evidence of a romantic attachment with Fillmore has been uncovered.
Thirty-two state hospitals for the mentally ill, in the U.S. and Canada, were created through Dix’s efforts. Some existing institutions were enlarged and staffed with caring and well-trained workers. Dorothea worked until a couple years before her death. She then took up residence in one of the institutions she helped build, and passed away there at the age of 85.
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