Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dorothea Dix: Social Reformer

Dorothea Lynde Dix (died 17 July 1887)

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, on 4 April 1802. Her father, Joseph Dix, is variously reported as a religious fanatic, an "itinerant Methodist preacher," and an abusive alcoholic--although I suppose he could well have been all three. It's not exactly an either/or proposition. Her mother, Mary Bigelow Dix, is also described as an alcoholic and a depressive.

Dorothea Dix, c. 1850-55
Whatever the problems of her parents, Dorothea, the eldest of three children, found herself caring for her younger siblings, two brothers. About her role in the unhappy household she would later write, "I never knew childhood."

Her father did teach her to read and write, however, and she attended school. During the War of 1812, the family moved to Vermont, then afterwards, when Dorothea was about twelve, the household relocated to Worcester, Massachusetts.

By this point, her parents proved so incapable that Dorothea and her brothers were taken in by Joseph Dix's mother, a wealthy Bostonian who provided stability and hoped to turn Dorothea into a lady; when Mrs. Dix encountered a little resistance, Dorothea was sent back to Worcester to live with her grandmother's sister, where she would remain for the next few years.

It was at this point that a cousin, Edward Bangs, encouraged her to open a school for girls, a "dame school"; girls could not attend public schools, but they could enroll in private schools and be taught by women. In 1816, then, when Dorothea was just fifteen, she opened a school for twenty girls between the ages of six and eight.

Three years later, feeling pressured by Edward Bangs, who had declared his love for her, Dorothea closed her school and moved back to Boston with her grandmother. There she formulated a plan to open two kinds of "schools," both in the Dix Mansion--one for wealthy girls, and another, a charity school poor girls who could attend for free. While expecting opposition from her grandmother, she received instead her support, and the school was opened. 

The school(s) remained open from 1822 to 1836, despite Dix's own ill health which often required breaks from her teaching duties. She also began to write, publishing textbooks and and devotional books for children, including Conversations on Common Things (1824), Meditations for Private Hours (1828), The Garland of Flora (1829) and American Moral Tales for Young Persons (1832).

Dix's ongoing health problems forced her to close her schools in 1836, and, at the advice of her doctors, she took what was to be a recuperative trip to England with friends. She returned to the U.S. in 1837, following the deaths, in rapid succession, of both her mother and grandmother.  

Her inheritance from her grandmother left her comfortably well off. Dorothea Dix returned to England and found her life transformed. Her friendship with the Rathbone family introduced her to the philosophy and campaign of British "lunacy reform" (as it was called), men and women investigating the conditions of madhouses and asylums and working toward change in the care for those who were mentally ill. 

She transferred the work of the lunacy reform movement to America when she returned in 1840. She began teaching Sunday school in a Cambridge prison. After conducting an investigation into the "prisons and almshouses," the "jails and asylums" for the poor, she issued a report, Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts, detailing the deplorable conditions she found and to "present the strong claims of suffering humanity." The abuses she details in thirty brief pages are appalling. 

Her researches moved beyond the commonwealth of Massachusetts, eventually extending through all the states east of the Mississippi. She helped in the founding, reforming, or enlarging of thirty-two mental hospitals, fifteen schools for the mentally disabled, a school for the blind, and training facilities for nurses in the states of Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Dix Hill Asylum, 1872,
Raleigh, North Carolina
Dix spent six years, between 1848 and 1854, lobbying for the U.S. Congress to pass the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane; this legislation was intended to create the facilities and provide funds for the long-term care of the "indigent insane" (a plan that included a request that millions of acres of federal land [accounts differ] be set aside to provide for the mentally ill and for the "blind, deaf, and dumb"). The bill passed Congress but was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce.

When that bill failed, Dix spent the next two years in Europe, continuing the campaign for reforming the ways the mentally ill were treated--she traveled to England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Germany before returning to the United States to continue her campaign.

During the Civil War, Dix was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union forces (she was appointed rather than the physician Elizabeth Blackwell), in charge of setting up field hospitals, recruiting nurses (she mandated that they be "plain-looking"), managing supplies, and setting up training programs. She was not particularly successful in this role, and she would later consider her war-time activities to be a failure, although her dedication to nursing both Union and Confederate soldiers earned her an enduring respect by those whom she treated.

After the war, she continued her role as a social reformer, though she contracted malaria in 1870, which weakened her considerably. Dorothea Dix continued to lobby for reform until her death in 1887 at the New Jersey State Hospital, Morris Plains, New Jersey--the first hospital to be built as a result of her efforts, some forty years earlier. She was eighty-five years old. 

Andrew Wood's excellent biographical essay on Dorothea Dix is available through American National Biography Online, which you can access by clicking here.  This essay includes a bibliography, but there are several newer volumes about Dix currently available, including one for children. 

Update, 1 April 2017: I recommend Gil Troy's excellent essay, "Meet Dorothea Dix, the Mother of Health Care Reform," as a timely comment on Dorothea Dix:
If today, in the twenty-first century, Americans are starting to consider free national health care as a basic right, it’s only because in the twentieth century Americans started considering every individual’s welfare a governmental responsibility. That assumption first required a nineteenth-century compassionate revolution, wherein Americans started taking on fellow citizens’ suffering as a communal concern—and feeling the national responsibility for everyone’s health that Dorothea Dix nurtured.