Dorothea Dix (1802–1887)

a social reformer

According to one of her biographers, Dorothea Dix exemplified one of the “rare” cases in history where a social movement of such proportions can be attributed to the work of a single individual. She was a teacher, a nurse, and a social reformer, best known for her indefatigable commitment to improving the treatment of the mentally ill during the 19th century.

Born the eldest of three children in Maine in 1802, to an abusive, alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother, she took it upon herself to raise her two infant brothers and consequently had no childhood of her own. Despite little formal education, she was intellectually gifted and driven, opening a private school in Worcester, Massachusetts, at age 15 where she taught young girls at a time when there were little to no educational opportunities available to females. Five years later she would open a similar school in Boston.

A life-altering event occurred in 1841 when she visited a local jail in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There she observed mentally ill inmates chained naked to stone walls in cells without heat or ventilation. The horror of what she witnessed inspired what was to become a life-long crusade to improve the treatment of the mentally ill. She managed to gain the attention of the Massachusetts State Legislature, which authorized funds to improve the dreadful conditions she exposed to the public.

Following her success in Massachusetts, she traveled extensively to other U.S. states as well as Europe and Asia, observing and exposing similar barbaric conditions and spurring worldwide improvements in the treatment of the insane. Her efforts were rewarded when the first state hospital for the mentally ill was opened in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1848. This was the second asylum built following the plan of Thomas Kirkbride, with whom she worked closely.

The strain of it all took its toll on Dorothea, physically and mentally. She suffered several debilitating breakdowns during her lifetime and eventually admitted herself to the same Trenton hospital that represented the fruition of her efforts. She was given a private apartment where she spent the remaining six years of her life, dying there in 1887.