United States and American History: 1841 and Dorothea Dix

About the reform activist Dorothea Dix who led the charge for better treatment of the mentally ill and insane in America and later served in the Civil War.


Mar. A shy, consumptive, 39-year-old spinster teacher, Dorothea Dix, entered the East Cambridge, Mass., House of Correction to conduct a Sunday school class for the inmates. When Miss Dix emerged from the House of Correction, shocked and shaken by what she had witnessed, she was a changed woman. The harrowing experience started her on a crusade that would last 4 decades and reform the treatment of the mentally ill and insane in the U.S. and England.

In that time, it was believed that the insane were born defective, were depraved, were hopeless, and therefore should be treated as animals. There were few insane asylums. Inmates were often kept in the worst parts of jails, prisons, almshouses. More often than not they were chained and whipped. Dorothea Dix set out to improve those conditions radically.

After a 2-year investigation, Miss Dix addressed a Memorial to the Massachusetts legislature: "I shall be obliged to speak with great plainness, and to reveal many things revolting to the taste, and from which woman's nature shrinks with peculiar sensitiveness. I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens--chained naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." The Memorial created a sensation. Her credibility was questioned by 2 Massachusetts newspapers, but her testimony was supported by several respected, influential men. Soon, the legislators sought to provide better treatment and clean rooms in hospitals for the insane.

Vigorously, Dix carried her crusade across the nation, traveling 10,000 mi. in 3 years, visiting 18 prisons, 30 jails, 500 almshouses, speaking before a dozen State legislatures. Everywhere she went, she succeeded in reforming conditions, so that the insane were housed in better quarters and treated more humanely. Dix then sailed to England and Europe, exposed the horrors there, and won additional drastic reforms.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, she volunteered to serve as a nurse, but instead was appointed Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union, the 1st person ever to serve in that capacity. At war's end she resumed her crusade, which was halted only by her death at the age of 80.

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