When I first moved to Raleigh nearly six years ago, I became aware of Dorothea Dix because (spoiler alert!) one of the institutions she helped set up still stands right outside of downtown Raleigh.
The campus takes up over 300 acres of land that the city has gained ownership of and is in the process of turning it into a “destination park.” But this post isn’t about Dix Park. It’s about the woman herself.
Dorothea Dix was born April 4, 1802 in Hampden, Maine. She was the oldest of three children. Her father was an alcoholic Methodist preacher and her mother was in poor mental health. As you would expect, her home life was very unhappy and her father was likely abusive. The family moved to Vermont shortly before the British invaded Hampden during the War of 1812. When her two younger brothers were born, she took over caring for them. When reflecting on this time of her life, she would later write, “I never knew childhood.”
In 1814, due to her parents’ failing health and inability to care for their children, her paternal grandmother took Dorothea and her brothers to live with her in Boston. Madame Dix was very wealthy and lived in a home referred to a “Dix Mansion.” Despite their new lifestyle, Dorothea continued to care for her brothers. Dorothea and her grandmother also butted heads about Dorothea’s rejection of the finer things in life, like a private dance teacher and personal seamstress. Madame Dix was furious when she discovered Dorothea giving food and clothing to “beggar children” outside the mansion’s front gate. Dorothea didn’t act like the wealthy girl she suddenly was and it bothered Madame Dix so much that she send Dorothea to her sister’s house (Dorothea’s great-aunt’s) to become a “lady.” Once she arrived, she immediately assumed the role so that she could go back to her brothers at Dix Mansion.
It was around this time that Dorothea decided she wanted to be a schoolteacher. She was informed, however, that girls were not allowed to attend public schools. Her cousin, Edward Bangs, suggested she start her own “little dame school” to get around this. Dorothea was sold and Edward helped her secure space for her lessons. In 1816 at the ripe old age of 15, Dorothea held her first class.
I’m going to fast forward now to 1841, when she had an experience that was the catalyst for her work in mental health reform. Between 1816 and 1841, she continued to teach and opened a school right in Dix Mansion with the support of Madame Dix. It was during this time that she began writing books for children. Around 1836, she took an extended trip to Europe to recoup from tuberculosis. In January 1841, she returned to Boston.
A few months after her return, she volunteered to teach Sunday school classes to women at the East Cambridge Jail. What she saw appalled her. The cells were unfurnished, unsanitary, and unheated, despite how brutal New England winters can be. She also thought it was unfair that mentally ill inmates were locked away with criminals. When she asked why inmates were forced to live under these conditions, she was told, “the insane do not feel hot or cold.”
She knew that this was not right and immediately began investigating other prisons and asylums. She found more of the same. In 1843, she used this data to submit a pamphlet (also known as a “memorial”) to the Massachusetts state legislature. Since women couldn’t vote or hold office, this was the only way she could get this in front of the legislature. (She wasn’t even allowed to present it herself. A man had to present it for her.)
It worked and funds were set aside for the expansion of the Worcester Mental Hospital
After this victory, she began traveling to other states to do the same. In the end, she helped establish 32 hospitals for the mentally ill, 15 schools for special needs children, a school for the blind, and several training facilities for nurses. She covered every state east of the Mississippi and then some. She did the same in Europe in the 1840s, covering 13 countries in two years. At home, she continued to be involved in the government as much as she could, which was not much considered the restrictions placed on women. During the Civil War, she became the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses and served for the duration of the war. She spent the last six years of her life in a hospital in Trenton, NJ. She passed away on June 17, 1887.
We’re not done here, though. We haven’t actually talked about her beliefs!
Obviously she believed that mentally ill people deserve to be treated like people. Unfortunately, this way of thinking was radical during her time. The mainstream belief was that mentally ill people could never be cured and they were fine to live in their “dreadful conditions.” Dorothea believed that better living conditions could help treat mental illness. (While it won’t cure you, as someone who has gone through depression and severe anxiety, I can tell you that sometimes just taking a shower and tidying up makes a world of difference.)
About a young woman, she wrote, “some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions. I know they are…I could give many examples. One such is a young woman who was for years ‘a raging maniac’ chained in a cage and whipped to control her acts and words. She was helped by a husband and wife who agreed to take care of her in their home and slowly she recovered her senses.”
No one understood the processes in the brain that were occurring in these individuals but Dorothea knew that at the very least, providing them with habitable conditions wouldn’t harm them.
During her life, Dorothea eschewed praise and often did not even put her name on the books that she wrote or hospitals that were opened during her lifetime. Even today, she is mostly unknown. Still, she is responsible for the 19th century shift in thinking about mental health in the US and much of Europe. We still have a long way to go but Dorothea ignited change during a time when everything was against her.