Dorothea Lynde Dix (as a child called "Dolly") was born April 4, 1802, in the town of Hampden, Maine. She was the first child of three born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow Dix. Her father was a poor book dealer and lay Methodist preacher. Joseph Dix, born in 1778, was considered the black sheep of his family. At the age of nineteen, he was expelled from Harvard for numerous infractions of the rules and nonpayment of his bills. This trend of failure continued his attempts at an apothecary apprenticeship, selling books, farming, and becoming a land merchant.
Joseph Dix had married Mary Bigelow on January 1, 1801, against his parents' wishes, and had left home in Boston to settle on what were then "wilderness lands" in Maine, owned by his father, Doctor Elijah Dix. Dolly's mother suffered from many illnesses, including depression, and was bedridden for much of her early childhood. Her father was an abusive alcoholic.
The family moved to Vermont around the time of the War of 1812, and then to Worcester, Massachusetts In 1814, at the age of 12 , Dolly and her brothers went to live in the Boston home of her wealthy 70-year old grandmother, Dorothea Lynde, wife of Doctor Elijah Dix.
In 1821, Dolly's father died in New Hampshire. That year, she established her own school in Boston, which was patronized by the well-to-do families. Soon afterwards she also began teaching poor and neglected children at home.
She was 59 years old when the Civil War began.
|Map of Boston, Massachusetts|
From 1824 to 1830 she was chiefly occupied with the writing of books of devotion and stories for children. Her Conversations on Common Things (1824) reached its sixtieth edition by 1869.
|William Ellery Channing|
In hopes of a cure, in 1836 she traveled to England, with a letter of introduction from Channing. Dix moved to Liverpool, England where she stayed at Greenbank, the home of philanthropist William Rathbone III. The Rathbones were Quakers and prominent social reformers; at Greenbank, Dix met men and women who believed that government should play a direct, active role in social welfare. She was exposed to the British lunacy reform movement, whose methods involved detailed investigations of madhouses and asylums. She remained with the Rathbones for about a year and gradually regained strength.
|Greenbank, the Rathbone Home in Liverpool, England|
Dix conducted a statewide investigation of how her home state of Massachusetts cared for the insane poor. In most cases, towns contracted with local individuals to care for people with mental disorders who could not care for themselves, and who lacked family and friends to provide for them. Unregulated and underfunded, this system produced widespread abuse. After her survey, Dix published the results in a report to he state legislature. "I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." The outcome of her lobbying was a bill to expand the state's mental hospital in Worcester.
Dix traveled from New Hampshire to Louisiana, documenting the condition of pauper lunatics, publishing reports to state legislatures, and devoting enormous personal energy to working with committees to draft the enabling legislation and appropriations bills needed to build asylums. In 1846, Dix traveled to Illinois to study mental illness. While there, she fell ill and spent the winter in Springfield recovering. As she recovered, she worked on research, and submitted a report to the January 1847 legislative session, which adopted legislation to establish Illinois' first state mental hospital.
|State Hospital, Raleigh, North Carolina|
|Harrisburg State Hospital|
|President Franklin Pierce|
|Dorothea Dix, ca. 1850s|
|George Templeton Strong|
|Julia Susan Wheelock|
When Confederate forces retreated from Gettysburg in 1863, they left behind 5,000 wounded soldiers who were then treated by Dix's nurses. Cornielia Hancock wrote about what she saw—"There are no words in the English language to express the suffering I witnessed today." Louisa May Alcott was another Civil War nurse hired and trained by Dix.
|Louisa May Alcott|
She resumed her crusade to improve the care of prisoners, the disabled, and the mentally ill. Her first step was to review the asylums and prisons in the South to evaluate the damage done to their facilities.
She found prospects for success now dimmed by massive immigration, a swelling population of the insane poor and much depleted state treasuries. Hospitals earlier built were now overcrowded, understaffed and in disrepair, well on the way to becoming as poor as the jails and almshouses they had replaced.
She contracted malaria in 1870 and was forced to abandon much of her traveling, although she continued to write and lobby for her causes.