Dorothea Dix: Crusader for the Insane


The beginnings of Dorothea “Dolly” Lynde Dix were shrouded in mystery for many years. Miss Dix, even in her later years, always remained secretive about her early life. In fact, many of her friends didn’t even know her date of birth. Eventually, it was uncovered that Miss Dix was born on the fourth of April, 1802, in the small town of Hampden, Maine. Her father, Joseph Dix, was described as having a shaky character and being obsessively religious. His days were spent immersing himself in alcohol and then begging for forgiveness by night. Her mother, Mary Bigelow, was an alcoholic as well. In order to escape her abusive father and alcoholic mother, Miss Dix ran away to Boston to live with her Grandmother, Dorothea Lynde. She continued her studies and, as a teenager began teaching school in Worcester. Until her early 30s, Miss Dix operated the Dix Mansion, a school, where focus remained on the natural sciences.


Miss Dix was a deeply spiritual woman, she was noted as saying that her actions were, “manifestations of the Lord’s will.” Having suffered from incipient tuberculosis for a number of years, she was forced to abandon her school and travel abroad where she stayed with the William Rathbones in London. She eventually returned to Boston but remained quite frail.

At the time, insanity was still predominantly viewed by medieval ideology that insane persons were possessed by the devil and little hope could be given. By the middle of the 1800s, that ideology was falling by the wayside and views of insanity were changing. European thinkers, such as William Tuke, were slowly changing the way insanity was viewed. Rather than punishing the insane, new methods were slowly replacing barbaric interventions, such as beatings. Using taxpayer money to cure the incurables was not a popular idea. This set in motion the plan of Miss Dix to start changing American minds.

East Cambridge Jail

In March of 1841, Miss Dix began teaching a Sunday school class in the East Cambridge, Massachusetts House of Correction. She befriended a few insane prisoners and discovered that they lacked very basic necessities such as a stove or no sources of warmth. The jailer reported to Miss Dix that a fire was both unsafe and unnecessary for them. After many attempts to request a way to provide proper warmth, Miss Dix took the case before the East Cambridge court and she was eventually granted the request. That meant freezing cold rooms for prisoners would no longer be an issue.

After her success at East Cambridge, Miss Dix traveled across Massachusetts to various jails and penitentiaries. She collected evidence of maltreatment of insane persons over a period of two years. She was able to befriend several influential friends in order to “memorialize” the legislature of Massachusetts (Memorial to Legislature of Massachusetts – 1843). As one might expect, the crusade of Miss Dix did not go over well with those charged with taking care of the insane. She was bombarded with attacks on her character—however, she persisted and the Massachusetts Legislature passed her measure.

Riding high on her continued success, Miss Dix continued traveling the New England area. It is estimated that she traveled some 10,000 miles throughout her career. She traveled again throughout Europe, getting a better understanding of the treatment of the mentally ill. Queen Victoria and Pope Pius IX were incredibly impressed by her crusade, ensuring that changes would be made to facilities. During the U.S. Civil War, Miss Dix was appointed as Superintendent of Women’s Nurses where she devoted countless hours to helping those in need. When the war ended, an 80-year-old Miss Dix returned to the work she was most passionate about—as a social advocate for the insane. She died on the 17th of July, 1887. Her work resulted in the establishment of some twenty hospitals for the insane across the world and changing the view of insanity from a draconian one to a moral one.

Miss Dix visited the Eastern State Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky in 1847 and, again, in 1858 (Memorial Soliciting an Appropriation for the State Hospital for the Insane, at Lexington).

The Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina and Western Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane at Dixmont in Dixmont, Pennsylvania were named in honor of her.

Contributed by Shawn Logan |

Works Cited

  1. Deutsch, Albert. Dorothea Lynde Dix: Apostle of the Insane. The American Journal of Nursing 36, no. 10 (1936): 987-97. 

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