Dorothea Dix

Reformer of the 1800s

Who was Dorothea Dix?

Dorothea Dix was a social reformer whose devotion to the welfare of the mentally ill led to widespread international reforms. After seeing horrific conditions in a Massachusetts prison, she spent 40 years lobbying U.S. and Canadian legislators to establish state hospitals for the mentally ill. Her efforts directly affected the building of 32 institutions in the United States.


“We are never happy until we learn to laugh at ourselves.”

“There isn't a single human being who hasn't plenty to cry over, and the trick is to make the laughs outweigh the tears.”

-Dorothea Dix

Why is she important?

Dorothea Dix played an instrumental role in the founding/expansion of more than 30 hospitals for the treatment of the mentally ill. She was a leading figure in those national and international movements that challenged the idea that people with mental disturbances could not be cured or helped. She also was a staunch critic of cruel and neglectful practices toward the mentally ill, such as caging, incarceration without clothing, and painful physical restraint.


Dorothea's impact is still remembered today. Without her mental hospitals my not exist.

Interesting Facts

  • Her father was abusive and an alcoholic
  • Her mother had bad mental health so Dorothea took care of younger siblings
  • She opened "a little dame school" at the age of fifteen. She ran and taught at this school for three years.
  • She founded 32 mental hospitals, 15 schools, 1 school for blind.

Timeline of Life

1802- Born at Hampden, Maine

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.

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.

1861- Volunteered services to the War Department & appointed Superintendent of Army nurses.

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 founded hospital in Trenton.