Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887) was an author, teacher and reformer. Her efforts on behalf of the mentally ill and prisoners helped create dozens of new institutions across the United States and in Europe and changed people’s perceptions of these populations. Charged during the American Civil War with the administration of military hospitals, Dix also established a reputation as an advocate for the work of female nurses. Her own troubled family background and impoverished youth served as a galvanizing force throughout her career, although she remained silent on her own biographical details for most of her long, productive life.

Dorothea Dix’s Early Life

Dorothea Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, in 1802. Her father Joseph was an itinerant Methodist preacher who was frequently away from home, and her mother suffered from debilitating bouts of depression. The oldest of three children, Dorothea ran her household and cared for her family members from a very young age. Joseph Dix, though a strict and volatile man prone to alcoholism and depression, taught his daughter to read and write, fostering Dorothea’s lifelong love of books and learning. Still, Dorothea’s early years were difficult, unpredictable and lonely.

Did you know? Louisa May Alcott was a nurse under Dorothea Dix during the Civil War. Alcott recalled that Dix was respected but not particularly well liked by her nurses, who tended to “steer clear” of her. Alcott wrote of her experiences in “Hospital Sketches,” years before achieving fame with the classic “Little Women.”

At 12 Dorothea moved to Boston, where her wealthy grandmother took her in and encouraged her interest in education. Dix would eventually establish a series of schools in Boston and Worcester, designing her own curriculum and administering classrooms as a teenager and young woman. In the 1820s Dix’s poor health made her teaching increasingly sporadic, forcing her to take frequent breaks from her career. She began to write, and her books—filled with the simple dictums and morals that were thought to edify young minds—sold briskly. By 1836, persistent health problems caused Dix to close her latest school for good.

Dorathea Dix: The Asylum Movement

That same year Dix traveled in England with friends, returning home months later with an interest in new approaches to the treatment of the insane. She took a job teaching inmates in an East Cambridge prison, where conditions were so abysmal and the treatment of prisoners so inhumane that she began agitating at once for their improvement.

Prisons at the time were unregulated and unhygienic, with violent criminals housed side by side with the mentally ill. Inmates were often subject to the whims and brutalities of their jailers. Dix visited every public and private facility she could access, documenting the conditions she found with unflinching honesty. She then presented her findings to the legislature of Massachusetts, demanding that officials take action toward reform. Her reports—filled with dramatic accounts of prisoners flogged, starved, chained, physically and sexually abused by their keepers, and left naked and without heat or sanitation—shocked her audience and galvanized a movement to improve conditions for the imprisoned and insane.

As a result of Dix’s efforts, funds were set aside for the expansion of the state mental hospital in Worcester. Dix went on to accomplish similar goals in Rhode Island and New York, eventually crossing the country and expanding her work into Europe and beyond.

Dorothea Dix:The Civil War

Dix volunteered her services one week after the Civil War (1861-1865) began. Shortly after her arrival in Washington in April 1861, she was appointed to organize and outfit the Union Army hospitals and to oversee the vast nursing staff that the war would require. As superintendent of women nurses, she was the first woman to serve in such a high capacity in a federally appointed role.

With supplies pouring in from voluntary societies across the north, Dix’s administrative skills were sorely needed to manage the flow of bandages and clothing as the war wore on. Still, Dix often clashed with army officials and was widely feared and disliked by her volunteer female nurses. After months of hard work and exhaustion, she was eventually ousted from her position, stripped of authority by the fall of 1863 and sent home.

Dorothea Dix’s Later Life

After the war, Dix returned to her work as a social reformer. She traveled extensively in Europe, evidently disenchanted with her experience during the war, and continued to write and offer guidance to what was now a widespread movement to reform the treatment of the mentally ill. Old hospitals were redesigned and rededicated according to her ideals, and new hospitals were founded in accordance with the principles she espoused. After a long life as an author, advocate and agitator, Dorothea Dix died in 1887 at the age of 85 in a New Jersey hospital that had been established in her honor. She is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.