Dorothea Dix

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Social Action
A social reformer dedicated to changing conditions for people who could not help themselves, Dorothea Dix was a champion for the mentally ill and the imprisoned. Not only a crusader, she was also a teacher, author, lobbyist, and superintendent of nurses during the Civil War. Through her tireless work of over two decades, Dix instituted changes in the treatment and care of the mentally ill and improved prison conditions. Today, the results of her efforts can still be seen throughout the United States, Canada, and many European countries.

Biographical Highlights

Dorothea Dix was a social reformer dedicated to changing conditions for people who could not help themselves - the mentally ill and the imprisoned. Not only a crusader, she was also a teacher, author, lobbyist, and superintendent of nurses during the Civil War. Through her tireless work of over two decades, Dix instituted changes in the treatment and care of the mentally ill and improved prison conditions. Today, the results of her efforts can still be seen throughout the United States, Canada, and many European countries.

"If I am cold, they are cold; if I am weary, they are distressed;
if I am alone, they are abandoned."

- Dorothea Dix

Historic Roots

Dorothea Lynde Dix´s parents were Joseph and Mary Dix. 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 (Gollaher 1995). This trend of failure continued his attempts at an apothecary apprenticeship, selling books, farming, and becoming a land merchant. Finally, Joseph found his calling as a traveling Methodist minister. He wed Mary Bigelow on January 1, 1801. Elijah Dix, Joseph´s father, considered Mary´s family inferior in social standing; hence, he believed his son had married below his means.

Mary Bigelow was born on July 15, 1779. Her family depended on young Mary to take on the role of mother to her two younger brothers, Charles Wesley and Joseph. Mary was a frail person who suffered from many illnesses, including depression. She was bedridden for much of Dorothea´s early life.

Dorothea (1802-1887) was born in the small town of Hampden, Maine. Her childhood was not a happy time and left permanent scars on her mental and physical health. No record exists of any physical abuse Dorothea´s parents may have inflicted upon her, though it is believed that her father was an abusive alcoholic. The Methodist religion, at the time, believed that corporal punishment was a heartfelt religious obligation of its members; this was completely opposite of the Puritan teachings that Joseph had received as a child.

At ten, Dorothea ran away and went to live with her grandmother in Boston. Grandmother Dix, who was a strict disciplinarian, agreed to educate and train her. The girl was a zealous reader and a remarkably quick learner. She drank in all the knowledge available to her for, on the Dix estate, there was a library at her disposal. Dorothea´s father had taught her how to read and write at an early age. Having no formal training or instruction in matters of etiquette, Dorothea did not fit into Boston society. She was awkward, shy, and dressed mainly in hand-me-downs. Grandmother Dix sent Dorothea to live with her niece in Worcester to instill responsibility and help Dorothea to prepare for her anticipated adult role of mother and wife. Dorothea´s brothers had been left with this niece sometime earlier and Dorothea would again be able to assume the role of their parent.

As a way to stay out of the social circles in which she was uncomfortable, Dorothea formulated a plan of action. At the age of fourteen, she opened a school for small children where she taught. Her students were required to put away "childish things" and her brothers attended the school where they were model students.

Around the age of nineteen, Dix moved back to Boston. She continued teaching and began a formal school for older children in a cottage on her grandmother´s property. The school was named "the Hope" and it served the poor children of Boston whose parents could not afford a formal education. At this time, Dorothea wrote her first book, Conversations on Common Things. This encyclopedia for children was quite popular and sold many copies.

Unfortunately, Dorothea was forced to close the school on 1826 due to health problems that would later become reoccurring. During a long period of convalescence (from 1827-1829), Dorothea wrote four more books including Hymns for Children and American Moral Tales for Young Persons.

In 1830, she received an offer to accompany Reverend William Ellery Channing and his family on a trip to the Virgin Islands as their children´s tutor and governess. The trip was for the recuperation of Mrs. Channing. Yet, Dorothea fell ill and, upon recovering, spent her time with the children exploring the beaches and the local plant life. In 1831, she returned to Boston and opened another school on the grounds of her grandmother´s estate.

At the age of thirty-four, while caring for her ill grandmother and teaching, Dix became very ill. Though the physicians of the time had no diagnosis or cure for her condition, it is now known that Dorothea suffered from tuberculosis. On the advice of her doctor, Dorothea was forced to quit teaching and take a long vacation. She went to England to rest and recover. Reverend Channing provided Dix a letter of introduction to his friends, William and Elizabeth Rathbone III in England. It is believed that the Rathbones took her in as part of their family and, in a year and a half´s time, nursed her back to health. It was in this loving household that Dorothea learned what it was like to have a family; she reveled in the acceptance and love that she found.

After her recovery from illness, Dorothea toured the most advanced insane asylum in England, York Retreat (built by William Tuke in 1796). It was here that Dix found the principles of treatment that would later influence her movement in America. Dorothea witnessed the insane being taken care of with dignity and respect (Herstek 2001). The idea that full recovery could be made if the mentally ill were treated and cared for compassionately was a principle Dix never forgot and brought to every aspect of her work.

In 1837, while Dorothea was in England resting and recovering, both her grandmother and mother passed away. Two years later, upon her return to the United States, she found that her grandmother had left her an inheritance. Dorothea traveled and executed the terms of Grandmother Dix´s will. She visited distant relatives and dispersed the remainder of the money under the terms of the will. Dorothea´s own inheritance, along with the royalties from her books, sustained her comfortably for the rest of her lifetime.

A new chapter materialized in Dix´s life in the form of an invitation to teach Sunday school to twenty inmates in the East Cambridge Jail in March of 1841. The invitation came from John Nichols, a Harvard Divinity student, and began a second career that would last decades. Dorothea took a tour through the jail--what she found changed her outlook on life forever. She saw the mentally ill housed in horrid conditions with no heat, no light, little or no clothing, no furniture, and without sanitary facilities. The mentally ill were held with criminals, irrespective of their age or sex. Dorothea was appalled by the conditions and treatment of mentally ill and her quest began.

She toured every facility in Massachusetts and documented the conditions and treatment of the mentally ill. What she found at the East Cambridge Jail was not to be the exception but the norm. She was told, during this tour, that the mentally ill needed no heat because they were unable to feel the extreme temperatures. Prisons, jails, almshouses, and private homes were among the facilities that she toured, taking almost two years.

When Dix was finished she compiled a detailed report and submitted it to the legislature in January 1843. This report was effective in provoking attention, though it was received badly by the people who ran the institutions. Soon the resistance died down and her findings were confirmed. A bill addressing the exposed conditions passed very quickly due to her connections with powerful politicians in Massachusetts. The Worcester Insane Asylum was to be enlarged.

Dix quickly moved on to New York and then to Rhode Island to continue her work on behalf of the mentally ill. In 1845, she addressed the legislatures in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She moved on to Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Yet, her ambitions were not limited to state governments--in 1848, Dix submitted a bill to Congress that called for five million acres to be set aside for the use of building mental institutions to care for the ill. By 1851, the bill had passed the Senate but failed in the House. For the next three years, the bill was passed back and forth. Finally, in 1854, it passed both the Senate and House, but President Franklin Pierce vetoed the bill. President Millard Fillmore was a supporter of Dorothea Dix and, in 1852, signed an executive order to begin construction of a hospital that would benefit Army and Navy veterans (Herstek 2001).

In desperate need of rest, Dorothea again traveled to England. She stayed at home of her friends, the Rathbones. From there, in 1855, she traveled to Scotland and the Channel Islands and spent the next three years on tours of Italy, Rome, Greece, Turkey, Australia, Hungary, Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia.

Upon her return to America, Dorothea traveled to Texas and other parts of the south to continue her work. Then, the Civil War began and she volunteered as a nurse in the Army. She was named the Superintendent of Army Nurses in 1861. She remained in this position until 1866. She then spent half a year helping families locate missing men who had served in the War. In 1867, she returned to her work with hospitals, lobbying for money to rebuild those that were destroyed.

In the end, Dix´s career spanned forty years and motivated the legislatures in fourteen states to pass bills for the humane treatment of the mentally ill. Her work affected the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Maryland. Dorothea also called for the legislatures in these states to create hospitals for the mentally ill. Her efforts did not go unnoticed--thirty-two hospitals were built as a result.

Her health began to fail in 1881 at the age of seventy-nine, while on another tour of the south. Arriving in Trenton, she checked herself into the state hospital that she had helped found. This is where Dorothea was to live out the rest of her remarkable life. She passed away at the age of eighty-five in 1887.


Dorothea Dix was the pioneering force in the movement to reform the treatment of the mentally ill in America. She modeled the movement after the examples and principles of her contemporaries in England, William Rathbone III and William Tuke. Her fellow American activists followed her lead. In support of the mentally ill, Dix instigated extensive legislative change and institutional practices across the United States. In addition, she affected the construction of hospitals and the training of staff of institutions.
Dix´s life is a testimony of commitment to the underprivileged and unwanted in society. She dedicated portions of her life to educating poor children unable to afford formal schooling. She then spent the remainder of her life, almost single-handedly, reforming the treatment of the mentally ill. She did not receive great wealth for these commitments, but used the resources and political connections available to her to make a difference for those in need. In fact, she spent the last fifty years of her life living, often, in quarters of the hospitals she founded.

Notably, Dix wanted no praise or recognition for her accomplishments. As an author, she rarely put her name on her writings. Even in retirement she refused to speak of her contributions as an activist and philanthropist.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

In addition to being a social reformer, Dorothea Dix can also be called a philanthropist for the mentally ill. The example of her advocacy and activism changed the evolution of the government and nonprofit sectors, in relation to policies and care of the mentally afflicted. Countless hospitals (both for-profit and nonprofit) and support groups arose from Dix´s recognition and enlightenment of the public about the treatment and needs of the mentally ill. She used her political ties, her reputation, her financial means and whatever resources that came her way to further the movement.


Key Related Ideas

Dix exhibited, at an early age, a commitment to poor children having access to an education through her founding of a formal school. Education for all is the principle (popular today but not in Dix´s day) on which the modern American public education system is founded.

Dorothea Dix´s work exposing and pushing for legislative changes in the conditions under which the mentally ill were housed and treated led to phenomenal reforms. Prisons (or jails) and almshouses, where people suffering from mental illness were housed side-by-side with criminals or the poor, gave way to exclusively dedicated facilities. Dix´s work resulted in the founding of thirty-two mental hospitals or mental institutions dedicated specifically to the care of the mentally ill. (See also insane asylum.)

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton was Anthony´s close friend and fellow suffrage and abolitionist crusader. Stanton stated, "[Anthony] supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years" (Kowalski 2000).
  • Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) was an abolitionist, educator and reformer. He established a school for the blind in Boston and "strenuously lobbied Congress to pass legislation to provide more aid for the education of the blind, deaf and mentally ill " (Spartacus Educational 2002).
  • William Ellery Channing was an Unitarian reverend instrumental in introducing Dix to the Rathbones, a life-altering experience for her.
  • William Rathbone III was an active Quaker who took Dorothea Dix into his home and, with the help of his wife, nursed her back to health (RootsWeb 2002).
  • William Tuke's York Retreat was one of the first mental institutions to provide outdoor tasks, good nutrition, and humane treatment instead of the use of mechanical restraints and confinement for mentally ill persons (Street 1994).

Related Web Sites

The Dorothea Dix Hospital Web site contains a biography of Dix and history of the hospital´s formation and development, as well as information on the hospital´s current services (

Shotgun´s Home of the American Civil War ( contains biographies relating to the Civil War, as well as writings from the time and information on battles, armies, the confederacy, available medicine, and other Internet sites.


Brown, Thomas. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0674214889.

Buckmaster, Henrietta. Women Who Shaped History. New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1966.

Central Washington University. APA Historical Database: Selected Entries

Gollaher, David. Voice For The Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix. New York: The Free Press, 1995. ISBN: 0029123992.

Herstek, Amy Paulson. Dorothea Dix: Crusader for the Mentally Ill. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 2001. ISBN: 0766012581.

Lightner, David. Asylum, Prison, and Poorhouse: The Writings and Reform Work of Dorothea Dix in Illinois. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. ISBN: 0809321637.

Norman, Gertrude. Dorothea Lynde Dix. New York: Van Rees Press, 1959.

O´Toole, Lucie. "Dorothea Lynde Dix." Thesis, Harwich Public Schools, 1998.

RootsWeb. Rathbone Papers

Schlaifer, Charles, and Lucy Freeman. Heart´s Work: Civil War Heroine and Champion of the Mentally Ill, Dorothea Lynde Dix. New York: Paragon House, 1991. ASIN: 1557784191.

Spartacus Educational. Samuel Gridley Howe. Available from

Street, W. R. A Chronology of Noteworthy Events in American Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1994.

Wilson, Dorothy Clarke. Stranger and Traveler: The Story of Dorothea Dix American Reformer. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.