Dorothea Dix

By: Jenny Myung

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Defining Quote

"Man is not made better by being degraded; he is seldom restrained from crime by harsh measures, except the principle of fear predominates in his character; and then he is never made radically better for its influence."

Early Life and Influences

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow Dix, on April 4, 1802. She was born in Hampden, Maine and was the first of three children. Dorothea's father was in poverty and was a disgrace to the Dix household. Joseph Dix was an abusive alcohol that worked as a Methodist preacher who constantly had to move to avoid debt. Similarly, Mary Bigelow Dix failed at her role of being a mother and Dorothea had to experience growing up at an early age.

One of her first influences was her wealthy grandfather, Elijah Dix. He was the opposite of the failure she called her father. While her father flunked out of school and getting a reputable job, Elijah Dix was the epitome of the self-made man; he grew up poor and became a doctor and was able to acquire money, land, and prestige. He was considered a 'pillar' of Boston society. Elijah Dix was considered 'the brightest presence" in Dorothea's childhood. As a child, Dorothea would personally hear the tales of how her grandfather climbed the steps of success and reached the status he was at. His story of his success motivated Dorothea to someday strive to reach the level of success her grandfather reached.

Tired of the neglect she faced with her parents, she sought the refuge of her grandmother, Madam Dix. She ran away from her parents and lived at Dix Mansion for a long period of time, under the supervision of her grandmother. Her grandmother was extremely strict, and enforced self-control, discipline, and restraint. The neglect of her parents and the aloofness of her grandmother had a critical impact of her childhood. Her early years were shrouded with a cloak of anger.

Although her childhood and teen years were full of angst, she confided in a friend with the name of Anne Heath. If her parents and grandmother were glaciers, Anne was the sun; she melted away the cold in Dorothea's heart and allowed Dorothea to feel the affection she had so lacked in her youth. Anne was someone that Dorothea confided and trusted in, which eventually led to them becoming life long friends.


As someone who was widely known as a mental illness activist and a reformer in prison and almshouses, she was strongly motivated by the suffering people she saw during tours of prisons and mental institutions. She was first exposed to the prison treatment when she taught Sunday school at a women's prison. Dix saw the terrible conditions the patients had to live in; she was horrified that people could even live in these conditions.She later visited another Massachusetts prison and noted that some of these mentally insane prisoners lived in cells that had no heat and was outraged. These conditions resulted in her wanting change in prisons and the mentality people had towards the mentally ill. She eventually toured the Northeast and visited several prisons and mental asylums. She gained many supporters and comrades along the way, which boosted her effort on changing the conditions of the mentally ill. Although many politicians opposed her idea of opening an asylum due to high taxes, eventually her motivation transitioned to action and she was able to set up many Mental Institutes and pass bills to protect the insane.

Compare and Contrast

Had Dorothea Dix been alive in this current time period, I believe she would've had greater influence. In her time, she wrote many books and pamphlets which circulated around and brought her much support. With this era's advent of the internet and social media, her views and opinions could reach a much larger audience. Her strong voice and great skill of writing would attract not only scholars and activists, but even the common public. In the 19th century, women held little influence and were seen as inferior to men. In our current era, where women are also guaranteed a voice and education, she would have been much more influential. Many times Dix was ridiculed as being an unmarried women; however, in this era she would definitely be more respected. In the modern era, there is not as much emphasis placed on gender, martial status, and socioeconomic status. As there are still many problems in the conditions and management in modern asylums in prisons, Dix would most likely be able to change this problem. Similarly, I believe that instead of her focusing on problems in Europe and the U.S. the advancement of transportation, she could establish her views in a world-wide setting. She could outreach her helping hand in countries that hold problems with the treatment of the mentally insane and make a change.

If I Had Dorothea Dix's Skills...

As Dorothea Dix was a prolific writer and a persuasive orator, she was able garner support and influence with the use of her words. Similar to Dorothea Dix, I strongly believe in change in the social rights movement that has been taking root recently. If I had Dorothea's capacity for learning and intelligence, I would use the power of my words to spark change and reform. Her persuasive writing style would allow for me to create my own revolution and bring more supporters to the social rights movement.

Political Cartoon

During the male-dominated 19th century, it was uncommon for women to rise to acclaim. Unlike their male counterparts, women were not seen in the political or scholarly sphere of society. They were more of a domestic accessory to men than anything else. However, unlike other women, Dorothea Dix became famous for her activism and intellect. She was influential and held power to her name and climbed the "pillars of influence". The weight of her being a female, and unmarried, made it difficult to enter this sphere. Despite this barrier, she remained successful and showcasing her opinions to the public. Although she never fully assimilated into this sphere, she held as much influence as any male politician did.
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In Manon S. Parry's article about Dorothea Dix, she explores the impact Dorothea Dix held in the world of mental illness treatment. She was the pioneer of mental illness of the time; she enforced the idea that people with mental disturbances could not be cured, and that inhumane treatment towards the mentally ill was unacceptable. Parry describes Dix's childhood and youth; she also describes the scholarly side to Dix by mentioning the books and other works she had written. Parry demonstrates an elevated view of Dix and talks about the accomplishments of Dix with favorable descriptions. Despite the struggles of being a women at the time, Parry talks of the influence Dix was capable of garnering through her pamphlets. Even with her small voice, she reached out to the mentally ill and defended them against the harsh conditions and inhumane treatments.

What Was Dorothea's American Experience?

Dorothea Dix's American Experience is her desire and compassion to help those in need. Her rewards came from her own personal satisfaction of achieving her goals and helping others. hough she was rather well off, she used her influence to raise awareness for others that were not as fortunate. Though her being a woman restricted her activism, she did her hardest to help the mentally ill obtain more livable conditions. Dix's persistence and singular drive allowed her to become truly a spectacle of her time. Her unconditional selflessness and drive makes her a figure that everyone can look up to. She is remembered as a nurse, teacher, humanitarian, and a social reformer of the mentally ill even over a century later, and will continue to be a role model in the following centuries.
The 19th Century Asylum and Moral Treatment
Voice For The Mad

Personal Evaluation

In David Gollaher's account of Dorothea Dix, he provides a chronological sequence of Dorothea's life events. Starting from childhood all the way to the legacy she held after her death, he provided the reader with vivid imagery and detailed passages. He not only talks about Dorothea's life, but also mentions the historical context shrouding her life time. Though some of the diction was at a high level, I enjoyed Gollaher's vivid descriptions and details regarding Dix. Along with her own life, he mentions the lives of people that were influential to her life, whether it be personally, religiously, politically, romantically, or economically.
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