Social reformer, educator
Born: April 4, 1802, in Hampden, Massachusetts (now Maine)
Died: July 17, 1887, in Trenton, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2022: Public Service
Few individuals in the 19th century did as much to improve the care of the mentally ill and other underserved populations as Dorothea Dix.
Little is known of Dix’s childhood. By age 12, she left her parents to live in Boston with her wealthy grandmother. By 14, she was teaching at a school for young girls; at 19, she opened her own school for girls in Boston. Unfortunately, Dix was prone to poor health. At the suggestion of her doctors, she spent two years in England, where she met social reformers and became interested in the treatment of the mentally ill.
While Dix was in Europe, her grandmother died, leaving her a considerable sum of money that would support her throughout her life. Returning to Boston, Dix accepted a position teaching Sunday school at a prison. There, she witnessed the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill, who were incarcerated with criminals and often chained to walls. This prompted Dix to investigate the treatment of the mentally ill throughout Massachusetts. Her work resulted in the state’s expansion of a hospital for this previously overlooked population.
In 1844, Dix began a similar investigation into prisons and poorhouses in New Jersey, where many of the state’s mentally ill were housed. Documenting multiple abuses, she urged the state Legislature to establish a proper facility for the mentally ill. After a contentious political fight, funds were appropriated in March 1845 to meet Dix’s demand.
Dix did similar work in New Hampshire, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and North Carolina; in all, Dix’s efforts inspired the 15 states to build facilities for the mentally ill, according to her Britannica biography. On a national level, she fought for a bill to set aside federal lands for facilities to care for the mentally ill and other underserved populations; the bill passed but was vetoed. Dix also worked for improvements in care of the mentally ill in Nova Scotia, Canada; Scotland; and the Channel Islands. She travelled to Rome and convinced Pope Pius IX to visit Italy’s asylums.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union Army appointed Dix superintendent of nurses. In this post, she increased the use of female nurses and promoted the even-handed care of Union and Confederate wounded alike, winning her lasting admiration in the South.
After the war, Dix continued her lifelong crusade to improve the care of the mentally ill, as well as prisoners and the disabled. In 1881, she moved into the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton, where the state Legislature had set aside a suite for her private use. She lived in the hospital—which she had heled found—until her death in 1887.