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Dorothea Lynde Dix was born on the Maine frontier when it was still part of Massachusetts. After an unhappy childhood, Dorothea left home at the age of 12 to live with relatives in Boston and Worcester. She was 14 when she opened her first school for young children in 1816. For the next 20 years, she combined teaching with writing textbooks, poetry, and religious tracts for young readers. Often in poor health, she travelled to England where she met reformers who were changing the way the mentally ill were treated.
In 1841, when she was nearly 40, she reached a turning point in her life. Teaching a Sunday school class for women in the East Cambridge jail, she realized that a number of the inmates had committed only one crime: they were mentally ill. Angered by what she saw, she brought the matter to a local court. Although her charges were denied, the womens living conditions were improved.
There were a few institutions which provided humane treatment for the insane, but they were the exceptions. Most people who suffered from mental illness lived in harsh conditions either at home, in prisons, or in poorhouses. Dix devoted the rest of her life to changing this; with singleminded fervor, she became the voice for the mad.
She began by surveying every jail, poorhouse, and house of correction in Massachusetts. In January 1843, she delivered a lengthly and dramatic report to the state legislature. With the support of several influential men, she succeeded in persuading the legislature to appropriate money to expand the state hospital for the insane at Worcester.
Encouraged by her victory in Massachusetts, Dix took her crusade to other states, covering over 30,000 miles in three years of non-stop travel. She prepared memorials designed to inform lawmakers and shame them into acting. In 1843, there were 13 mental hospitals in the country; by 1880 there were 123, and Dorothea Dix played a direct role in founding 32 of them. She lent her support to other causes, especially prison reform and education for the blind, but the mentally ill remained her primary concern.
Her skill as a lobbyist made her the most politically active woman of her generation, but her most ambitious campaign--for federal land grants to endow state mental hospitals--failed. When the Civil War broke out, Dix hoped to become the American Florence Nightingale, but her tenure as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union was not a success. After the war, she worked on behalf of the mentally ill until she herself became too infirm. She spent her last years in the guest quarters of a state hospital she had helped found 35 years before; she died in 1887 at the age of 85.
(Born April 4, 1802, Hampden, Maine; died, July 18, 1887, Trenton, NJ. Buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. Photo courtesy of The Boston Athenaeum.)