No other individual has ever had as profound an impact on the way the mentally ill are treated and cared for as Dorothea Dix. Throughout her life, Dix was a dedicated activist that sought to bring to light the issues surrounding the mentally ill. She saw problems with the system that was in place and dedicated her life to seeking change. Her impact on American society has been incredible and she has earned her place in history as a tireless crusader for the rights of those who could not speak for themselves. Dorothea Dix was defined by her earliest beginnings.
Born in Hampden, Maine in 1804, she apparently had a hard first few years. Her mother had severe mental illness and her father was an alcoholic who was said to abuse the family. Dix once wrote, “I never knew childhood” (Parry). She moved to Boston in 1814 and lived with her wealthy grandmother. As a young girl in Maine, Dix did not have the access to education but in Boston, Dix became a schoolteacher (Bumb). She taught out of her grandmother’s house in 1821 and published books that other young schoolteachers would find useful for years to come (Parry).
It was during these years that Dix was exposed to the intellectual and social issues that would help form her into the activist that she would become. She learned from such intellectuals as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, and also became extremely religious, going so far as to publish religious poetry (Parry). All during this time Dix faced a great many personal hardships. Illness, fatigue, and depression are a few of the problems that she had to overcome in order to continue her work as a schoolteacher (Bumb, Parry).
Dix became extremely ill in her thirties and was sent away to England on a vacation where she was ordered to rest and relax, and especially ordered to give up teaching (Bumb). While in England, she became more socially conscious and after returning, Dix was able to dedicate herself fully to activism and reform due to an inheritance she received from her grandmother (Bumb). Dix’s true calling was found when she began a Sunday school class for women at a jail in Massachusetts.
Dix witnessed “prostitutes, drunks, criminals, retarded individuals, and the mentally ill…all housed together in unheated, unfurnished, and foul-smelling quarters” (Bumb). Moved by what she saw, her crusade to change the way the mentally ill were treated began. The unique thing about the way that Dix approached her cause was the way in which she got attention for it from the legislature of Massachusetts and other states. She would investigate jails and poor houses where there was a large population of mentally ill and put her findings into a document that she would send to the government.
In Massachusetts, she took her concerns to court and won. A friend of the Governor, Dix was able to get her views across and influence the outcome. The Governor listened, and the Massachusetts legislature voted to fund more help for the mentally ill through the Worcester State Hospital. This spurred her onward and she repeated the steps in many states around the country (Parry). Dorothea Dix traveled the country investigating the treatment of the mentally ill and intended on making the same changes she had made in her home state.
“Dix was able to use her vivid and upsetting descriptions to powerful effect, damning the existence of these abuses and shaming political leaders into taking action on her behalf, and on behalf of the ‘inmates’ of these institutions” (Parry). She was tireless in her dedication to the people who were mistreated and because of her hard work and influence, she was instrumental in the founding of “32 mental hospitals, 15 schools for the feeble minded, a school for the blind, and numerous training facilities for nurses” (Bumb).
She was the first person to ask that the United States government become involved in the health and welfare of the mentally ill (Bumb). After extensive travel and research in Europe, Dix returned to a wartorn United States. The Civil War was underway and she was quickly asked, because of her reputation, to be Superintendent of Union Army Nurses in 1861. She was 59 years old and had already dedicated 20 years of her life to the reform of treatment for the insane. By all accounts she was strict and stern with the women under her, but the care of the soldiers improved under her care.
Yet, despite this, she was disliked by the military officials and the nurses themselves and in her own opinion, considered her time as a Civil War nurse to be a failure and she returned to her work as an activist (LeVert, Bumb). One of Dix’s most impressive achievements was the opening of the state hospital in Trenton, New Jersey, where she would later die as a patient in 1887 (Parry). Dorothea Dix spent her life bringing awareness to the public about the way that the insane, retarded and mentally ill were treated in the institutions that were in place, and brought to light the fact that something needed to be changed.
Her social impact was huge. She accomplished a great deal in her life and all of the change related to the way these forgotten people were treated was a direct result of her hard work and determination to get her voice heard, if theirs could not be heard. Today the government has institutions set up for people with mental illness, state hospitals are in every state, and these people are no longer considered throw-away parts of society. Medical treatment, hospital care, and general view of the issues are remarkably different today than it was before Dix made an impact.
She has been called “the most effective advocate of humanitarian reform in American mental institutions during the nineteenth century” (Bumb). This statement is made even more incredible by the fact that she was, indeed, a woman during a time when women were not even allowed to go to public schools. Her accomplishments would be incredible for a man, but as a woman they are even more astonishing. Dorothea Dix’s impact on society is felt around the world as she helped reform not only the United States, but Europe as well. She defended those who could not defend themselves and changed the world in the process. Works Cited
Bumb, Jenn. “Dorothea Dix Reformed Treatment of the Mentally Ill. ” Human Quest (2003). 30 Dec. 2006 <http://www. findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_qa3861/is_200309/ai_n9253113/pg_1>. Levert, Suzanne. “Dorothea Dix. ” Home of the American Civil War. 12 Dec. 2005. The Civil War Society. 30 Dec. 2006 <http://www. civilwarhome. com/dixbio. htm>. Parry, Manon S. “Dorothea Dix. ” American Journal of Public Health 96 (2006): 624-625. 30 Dec. 2006 <https://libraries. vsc. edu/referer/hrt-redirect. axd? URL=http://search. ebscohost. com/login. aspx? direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,uid&db=aph&AN=20473600&site=ehost-live>.