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Dorothea Lynde Dix

the first female lobbyist of more than local significance

Dorothea Lynde Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, on April 4, 1802, and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. The first of three children born to Joseph and Mary (Bigelow) Dix, she spent her childhood caring for her younger brothers due to her father's severe alcoholism and her mother's severe mental illness. Despite his alcoholism, Dorothea's father taught her to read and write from an early age, and she grew up with a love for books and learning. By the time Dorothea reached the age of 12 her parents' conditions had become so severe that her father's mother took her and her brothers into her Boston home. The elder Mrs. Dix was a fairly wealthy woman and expected her granddaughter to develop interests appropriate to a wealthy girl, but Dorothea had other ideas.

Dix wanted to be a schoolteacher, but such an occupation was in her day deemed inappropriate for girls. And, since girls of her day were expected to do little more than get married, have children, and serve their husbands, it was also deemed unnecessary for them to receive an education and they were prohibited from attending public schools. Fortunately for Dix, however, there was no provision against girls receiving a private education, so at age 14 she opened a private school for girls that catered almost exclusively to the daughters of well-to-do families. A separate class for "poor girls" was added in 1822, and Dix taught both classes until 1836, when poor health forced her to close the school. She spent the next five years recuperating in England.

Soon after returning to Boston in 1841, Dix agreed to teach female convicts housed in the East Cambridge Jail. Upon her arrival, Dix was shocked to see violent criminals being housed in the same cells as people suffering from mental illness, in addition to being forced to live without adequate heat, clothing, sanitary facilities, etc. After suing on behalf of the inmates and securing court ordered improvements, Dix embarked on a mission to "inspect" every jail and almshouse in Massachusetts. Thanks to family connections, she was allowed to present her detailed findings before the Massachusetts State Legislature, which ultimately allocated funding for an expansion of and improvements to the Worcester State Hospital (for the mentally ill). Much to the surprise of many (but not to Dix), the mental health of many hospital patients began improving, and many who had originally been diagnosed as "incurable" were able to resume normal lives.

Having achieved success in Massachusetts, Dix next set out to improve conditions for the mentally ill across the country. By 1848 she had visited every state east of the Mississippi, and had succeeded in getting funding for 32 mental hospitals, 15 schools for "feeble minded," a school for the blind, and numerous training facilities for nurses. At the national level, she asked the U.S. Congress to set aside more than 12 million acres of land as a public endowment to be used for the benefit of the mentally ill as well as the blind and deaf. A bill establishing such an endowment was passed by Congress in 1854, but it was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce.

Discouraged by the failure of her national proposal, Dix went to Europe. Although the trip to Europe was meant to be a vacation for her health, Dix ended up spending two years lobbying for, usually successfully, improvements to European mental health facilities. Returning to the United States in 1856, she spent the next five years working in the states she had "missed" during her first "tour." When the Civil War broke out, Dix volunteered her services and was made superintendent of Union Army nurses. Although she performed her job with efficiency, she proved to be an ineffective bureaucrat and was relieved of her duties before the war ended.

After the war, Dix resumed her work on behalf of the mentally ill, but was forced to give up most of her travel due to poor health in 1870. In 1881 she admitted herself into the state hospital in Trenton, New Jersey, the first hospital to be built as a direct result of her efforts; she died there on July 17, 1887, and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

President Franklin Pierce
Civil War

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This page was last updated on July 17, 2018.