Dorothea Lynde Dix

(1824 - 1880)

Compiled by Tana Brumfield Casarez (May 2000)

Dix Biography
Time Line

A teacher, nurse, humanitarian, and social reformer for the mentally ill, that was Dorothea Lynde Dix. She enjoyed helping people. At the age of 54, Dorothea had traveled half of the United States and Europe inspecting institutions, jails, etc. for mistreatment (URL 1). She left her mark on society as to its current outlook of the mentally ill. Her achievements are still being felt today as we release more and more of the stigmata that have encompassed the mentally ill individual. Dorothea Dix accomplished more in one 15 year span of her life than most individuals did in a lifetime.

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born on April 4, 1802 in the town of Hampden, Maine. She was the first of three children born to Joseph and Mary Bigelow Dix. Dorothea's father was a Methodist preacher. The war of 1812 began ten years after her birth. Her family had taken refuge in Vermont just prior to the war (URL 1).

Dorothea had anything but a normal childhood. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and her mother, it was rumored, was mentally retarded. Later, two more children were born into the family and Dix had the job of both mother and father. Dix had been known to make the comment, "I never knew childhood" (URL 1). Often, she would take refuge at her grandmother's house in Boston.

Though Dorothea lived a dysfunctional family life, she learned much from her father, such as reading and writing. These two assets would influence many of the choices she would make later in life. This early and added skill of reading and writing put her ahead of all her classmates in school. So began her passion for teaching as she taught her brothers to read. The family soon moved to Massachusetts. By this time, her father was an incurable alcoholic and her mother became worse, suffering from acute and incurable headaches (Snyder, Charles 1975).

Dorothea's grandmother, on her father's side, who had given her refuge earlier in life, decided to take the three children into the Dix mansion. Dorothea was 12 at the time and though her grandmother was wealthy, Dorothea continued to care for her brothers. Her grandmother, Madame Dix, was 70 years old. Dorothea was not accustomed to the wealthy lifestyle and hated the demands made of her. She would not conform to the rich lifestyle of her grandmother. She was sent away at the age of 14 to her aunts, Madame Duncan, after being severely punished for giving her new clothes to beggar children outside the front gates. She spent nearly 4 years learning the role of a lady. (URL 1).

During the time Dorothea lived with her aunt, she met her second cousin, Edward Bangs, while attending a party. He was very attracted to her. He was 14 yr. older than she was, but as they discussed plans they had for their futures, she immediately told him of her plans to be a school teacher. He suggested she begin her teachings at a ‘little dame school.' When she asked Edward what that was, he explained to her that girls could be taught by other woman but girls were not allowed to be taught in public schools. If she were interested, her would help her get her start. She was overwhelmed with joy. Edward found a location for Dorothea so she could hold her classes. It was an old store located on Main Street. During the fall of 1816, she faced her first class of 16 pupils, all between the ages of 6-8. She ran the school for 3 years and was forever grateful to Edward for making her dream come true (URL1).

Edward had fallen in love with Dorothea. He told her and frightened her so, that she closed the school and moved back to Boston. Edward followed. He would not give up so easily. He proposed. Although she accepted, Dorothea could not help remembering her parent's marriage and what that experience made marriage to her in her eyes. She never set a specific date for the wedding (URL1) .

In 1821, Dorothea's father died in New Hampshire. She knew then that she would never marry. She returned Edward's engagement ring. She had spoken with her grandmother about a plan she had, prior to her decision to break her engagement to Edward. With the support of her grandmother, her plan was executed, and her life became devoted to teaching the poor and the elite young women of society (URL1).

Dorothea's plan broke poor Edward's heart, but thrilled Madame Dix. Little did Dorothea know that Edward would become a political team player in her fight to establish institutions for the mentally ill. In 1821, Dix established her own school of teaching. She ran it successfully until she was stricken with a tuberculin disease, which forced her to give it up (URL 2). She was an invalid for some time. Her health began debilitating while trying to take care of her sick grandmother. She continued to teach. She had to stop at her physicians urgings. During her recuperation, her grandmother and mother died within two days of each other. This was also during the time she studied the conditions of institutions for the insane, the jails, and almshouses. She was absolutely appalled by the cruelty; dirty, diseased, ill clothed individuals and brutality of these places (Snyder, Charles. 1975). Dorothea, being a woman of the early 19th century, remained in the background of her passionate crusades, but she did utilize her political influence to broadcast her findings.

Dorothea's rewards came from satisfaction of achievement. She has been referred to on numerous occasions as a forgotten Samaritan (Snyder, Charles 1975). She was responsible for establishing or enlarging 32 mental hospitals in N. America, Europe, and Japan. (The Bettman Archive) She down played herself in public and might well have been upset and even declined her role in the Hall of Fame had she been alive. Dorothea never married.

In 1881, she accepted an apartment at the Trenton New Jersey Sate Hospital she herself had founded. Six years later, July 17, 1887, at the age of 85, Dorothea Dix died of what her physician called ossification of the arterial membrane. She was seated at the tea table. She was later buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston with the simplest of funeral services (Snyder, Charles 1975).

Humanitarian Crusades

From 1843-45, she traveled more than 10,000 miles investigating these morbid locations. Rome was not built in a day, so it is said, and neither was Dorotheas reformation of these appalling conditions. She found men and women chained to walls and floors in dark and filthy rooms. They were clothed in feed sacks if clothed at all. The stench of feces and urine was overpowering (The Bettman Archive)

Dorothea was a shrewd politician. First she would gather information, investigating and obtaining facts about a particular establishment, then she would effectively publicize the abuse and mistreatment of the mentally ill housed in these institutions. She was consistent in obtaining the support of key legislators (Hothersall, David 1995). Results were gradual but she did see asylums built in many states and others improved.


In June 1861, Dix was appointed superintendent of female nurses by the secretary of war, Simon Cameron, for the federal government. She over saw the training, recruitment, and placement of some 2,000 women who cared for wounded union soldiers during the civil war (URL 3). She had never employed any formal nursing training.

After the war, she reassumed her work among the insane. She was constantly hounded by her continuing illnesses, but still stayed faithful to her humanitarian cause. She was not a social creature and was cold and callous to normal society. She was quoted as saying "I have no particular love for my species, but own to an exhaustless fund of compassion" (URL 3).

The President's Lady

We sometimes wondered how Dorothea was so influential for a woman in the early 19th century. Her relationship with the president of the United States was considerably influential to her cause (Snyder, Charles 1975). Though some might say their relationship was more than friendship, we have found that quite untrue.

President Millard Fillmore found Dorothea to be a wonderful warm and caring companion, a ‘loyal friend,' but he knew they were from two different worlds. Romantic attachment would never be a part of their future. According to Fillmore, Dorothea enjoyed sharing the lives of others. Millard Fillmore helped to satisfy this need by assisting her in her humanitarian efforts. Her devotion and loyalty to him was his reward (Snyder, Charles 1975).

Time Line
1802 Born at Hampden, Main (April 4).
1814 Made her home with grandmother, Dorothy Lynde Dix, in Boston.
1819 Attended secondary school in Dorchester.
1821 Opened elementary day school in grandmother's home.
1825 Published Conversations on Common Things.
1830 Served as governess for children of William Ellery Channing at St. Croix, Virgin Islands.
1831 Opened secondary school in her home.
1836 Broken in health, convalasced in the home of William Rathbone in England.
1837 Returned to Boston.
1841 Taught Sunday School lesson to prisoners in East Cambridge House of Correction; appalled by misery of insane there.
1842 Toured Massachusetts, inspecting conditions of the insane in almshouses and jails.
1843 Released memorial to the state legislature on the conditions of the insane.
1844 Exposed maltreatment of the insane in Rhode Island
1845 Memorialized legislature of New Jersey; Trenton State Hospital, her "first-born child."
---- Launched campaigns in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania...
1846 Carried campaign into the South: New Orleans, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
1848 Took campaign to Washington, seeking a federal land grant to hospitals for the insane.
1849 Additional campaigns in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Illinois, Ohio, and North Carolina.
1850 Met Vice President Fillmore. Initiated correspondence with President Fillmore (August 30).
----Land grant bill passed by the House defeated in the Senate.
1851 Land grant bill passed by the Senate but failed passage in the House. ----Advised President Fillmore on the secessionist movement in South Carolina (March-April).
1852 Obtained congressional appropriation for the Army and Navy (St. Elizabeth's) Hospital in Washington.
1853 Carried crusade to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Sable Island.
1854 Shocked by rumors of Fillmore's remarriage (February).
----Her land grant bill killed by President Pierce's veto (May).
----Grieved by death of Abby Fillmore, sailed for Europe for the rest and work.
1855 Campaigned in Scotland for better treatment of the insane.
----Met Fillmore in London and in Paris.
1856 Toured Italy and interceded with Pope Pious IX for the insane.
----Toured Turkey, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia (April-June).
----Supported Fillmore's candidacy for President (October) & visited him in Buffalo.
1857 Resumed crusade for the insane in Pennsylvania and New York.
1858 Learned of Fillmore's remarriage). Made extensive tour of the South and West.
1860 Met Fillmore and wife in New York City (October).
1861 Volunteered services to the War Department & appointed Superintendent of Army nurses.
1866 Raised money to construct soldier memorial at Hampton, Virginia.
1867 Returned to mission for the insane, seeking to rectify neglect and deterioration during the war.
1868 Penned her last surviving letter to Fillmore (February 17).
1881 Made her last tour of the South, inspecting hospitals in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and accepted apartment in the Trenton State Hospital.
1887 Died in her apartment in Trenton (July 17).

Hothersall, D. (1995). History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill
Snyder, C. (1975). The Lady and the President. Kentucky:University Press.
Other sources:
The Bettman Archvives

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