Dorothea Dix was an advocate for mental health reform and changed the face of treatment for the mentally ill. One of the first women to publicly push for reform, she was a teacher, author, and nurse, devoted to helping the underprivileged, especially those in mental health asylums. She traveled extensively, investigating the treatment and conditions for the insane. Her work and the places she visited were sometimes dangerous. She traveled from the big cities to the backwoods to the slums. She traveled overseas to many different countries. Dix met many of the great American political figures of her day and many of the important dignitaries in Europe. She also befriended many of the philosophers, thinkers, and scientists of her time period, many of whom helped in her work. Her relentless quest for humane treatment of the insane changed attitudes and built institutions.
Many unfortunate turns in her life brought her towards the mentally ill and gave her the opportunity to accomplish some of the great things she did. A sermon on the public function of woman, preached in 1853 by Theodore Parker, a supporter of women’s rights, spoke on the suitability of women to perform acts of public philanthropy and spoke specifically about Dorothea Dix. “The wives and daughters of the wealthy house go out to . . . heal the sick and teach the ignorant . . . the moral, affectional and religious feelings of woman fit her for this work. It has been so, from Dorcas in the Acts of the Apostles, to Ms. Dix, in our day, who visits jails and houses of correction” (WWHP 5).
EARLY LIFE AND TEACHING
Dorothea Dix was born in Hampden, Maine on April 4, 1802. Her father was an unsuccessful farmer and her family was very poor. Her father became a traveling Methodist minister and the family moved frequently. Dix’s childhood was extremely hard. Her mother was unwell and her father was an alcoholic. Because of her family’s circumstances, Dix had the main...