Dorothea Dix: Biography and Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Dorothea Dix was a major figure in reforming the ways that modern societies view and treat their mentally ill. In this lesson we'll talk about her life and legacy, and see exactly how Dix changed society.

Dorothea Dix

There's a lot that goes into managing a society, a lot that we don't always think about. For example, how do we treat the mentally ill? It's an important question, and today we treat these people firmly as people, fully deserving of their basic human rights and in need of medical attention. But, as with every other part of society, this didn't just happen; there's a history here. A great deal of that history revolves around a 19th century woman named Dorothea Dix. Dix was a reformer and educator whose work with the mentally ill rewrote national and international attitudes about the treatment and care of this population. At a time when the mentally ill were simply seen as crazy, Dorothea Dix seemed to be crazy about helping them.

Dorothea Dix

Early Life

Dorothea Dix was born in Maine in 1802. In 1814 she moved in with her grandmother, possibly to get away from her parents, and later became a schoolteacher. This was one of the few professions open to women at the time. In 1824 she published her first book called Conversations on Common Things; or, Guide to Knowledge. The book, which was aimed at young female teachers, pushed Dix's belief that women should be guaranteed the same educational opportunities as men. It was the first of many books and Dix became a prolific writer, earning her a place in literary circles including the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Dorothea Dix opened her own school in 1831, which met in her own home, but the workload had its impacts. Around 1836 she started obsessing over death, and many scholars have suggested that she suffered from some pretty serious bouts with depression. This experience likely helped bring mental illness, and national attitudes towards it, to her attention.

Mental Illness Reform

As Dix was recovering from her own mental health issues, she toured England and met with other female reformers there. Two, Elizabeth Fry and Samuel Tuke, introduced her to English prison and mental illness reform movements. Dix took these ideas back to the United States, and started putting the sizeable inheritance from her late, but very wealthy grandmother to good use.

Dix focused on her new interest by teaching Sunday school classes to female inmates in Massachusetts, where she saw firsthand how badly the mentally ill were treated. At the time, mental illness was generally seen as untreatable, and patients were treated in very inhumane conditions. The mentally ill in the prison where she volunteered were kept in cells with no heat, because the prison believed the mentally ill could not feel hot or cold. Dix went to the courts to require the prison to provide heat for the mentally ill. Her new career was off.

In the 19th century, mental illness was seen as untreatable.
Mental illness

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