The Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix

By: Harshini Cormaty

Her Life Story

  • Born in Hampden, Maine on April 4th, 1802 to Joseph and Mary Bigelow Dix.
  • Her father was a religious fanatic and sold religious tracts. As a child, Dorothea Dix would often have to do the job of stitching and pasting these tracts together, a responsibility she dreaded.
  • Joseph Dix and Dorothea Dix did not get along well because their characters were so distinctly different. Joseph was erratic and controlling and Dorothea was disciplined and obsessed with self control. As an adult, she would come to often refer to herself as an orphan, although she wasn't one.
  • Dorothea Dix had nothing but distrust towards her parents and therefore, in 1814, at the age of 12, Dorothea Dix moved to live with her wealthy grandmother in Boston Massachusetts.
  • After a few years, she established an elementary school.
  • In 1820, she closed the school because her grandmother had pushed her to look for a husband.
  • Sometime during her teenage years, Dorothea was engaged to her 31 year old, second cousin Edward Bangs.
  • She then met Anne Heath, her best friend. Even with her, Dorothea would be very secretive.
  • In April, 1821, Joseph Dix died and this event devastated Dorothea. She became very tired and angry.
  • Dorothea decided to finally open up to Anne and expressed in her letters that she felt that she had had struggled with restraining from committing the "6 faults (sleep, drowsiness, fear, anger, laziness, and loitering)"
  • In 1822, she finally devoted her life to teaching and managed to teach 2 classes. At this time, she also started writing children's books.
  • By 1830, her health had worsened and she became very ill. After taking a break from work and becoming a tutor for her good friend Dr. Channing's children. She returned a year later almost fully recovered.
  • David Gollaher suggests that she suffered from a mental breakdown and depression during this time period.
  • In 1841, she pursued the cause of helping the insane.
  • During this time gap, she traveled around the world and throughout the U.S. Trying to improve mental hospitals everywhere.
  • In 1861, Dix volunteered in the Civil War. She was appointed as the woman in charge of organizing the Union Army hospitals and overseeing the nursing staff. She was one of the first women to have such a high role in the federal government.
  • She was released of duty in 1963 due to her refusal to submit to Army officials.
  • She then returned to her social work until her death on July 17, 1887. She was hospitalized for 6 years before her death because of her declining health.

Influences and Motivation

  • Some of her childhood experiences ,which are very ominous, may have contributed to her interest in helping the mentally ill. With suggestions that she was physically and emotionally mistreated as a child and later suffered with depression are also impetuses for her work for the insane.
  • Anne Heath was also a major influence on Dorothea Dix because, while Dorothea was suffering with depression, Heath believed that Dix had potential for a higher calling.
  • Dorothea Dix first saw the cruel treatment of the mentally ill in March of 1841. She volunteered at East Cambridge Jail as a teacher for a Sunday school class for the female inmates. It was here that she saw the poor care for the insane. They were grouped with the prisoners, prostitutes and drunks.
  • After this incident, Dix visited multiple jailhouses and almshouses, which housed people who had a mental disability. She observed and made extensive notes on how the insane were taken care of.
  • She then put all this information together and presented a document to the Massachusetts legislature. After a heated debate, she was able to convince the legislature to increase funding for the expansion of Worcester State Hospital.


  • Dorothea Dix established 32 mental hospitals, 15 schools for the mentally ill, a school for the blind, and many training facilities for nurses.
  • She also inspired many more institutions for the insane.
  • Dix founded libraries in prisons, mental hospitals, and other institutions.
  • She also changed the views of the public. The most common belief was that the insane were not able to be cured and that they couldn't feel anything. Dix showed that by improving their living conditions, it could possibly help the insane and maybe even nurse them back to sanity.
  • For two years, she went to Europe and made the same amount of progress in terms of the treatment of the mentally disabled as she did in the US
  • Dorothea Dix refused to have any of these establishments or publications under her name, for she wanted nothing more than to help the insane.
  • Many times she sacrificed her health throughout her advocation for improvements in the treatment of the mentally unstable to ensure that a change would happen.

What if Dix was active in a different time period?

If Dorothea Dix was active in the Civil Rights Movement time period, she would have been perceived very differently. In her own time period, women were rarely seen as important enough to pay attention to. It took Dix a lot of persuasion to have her voice be heard. On the other hand, during the Civil Rights Movement, women had gained more rights and had a bigger say in political and social movements. If Dix were active during this time period, she would have been more successful and efficient because of her new-found rights. One thing that is important about Dorothea Dix is that she wasn't necessarily opposed to slavery, but instead opposed to harsh treatment. However, if she were active during the Civil Rights Movement, Dorothea Dix would most likely have taken up the cause of helping the African Americans gaining more rights. She had always had the attitude that she had a higher calling and tried to help as many people she could. Once she saw the unfair, and sometimes brutal, treatment of the blacks by some of the people from the deep South, she would not stop until her voice was heard and she made a significant impact.

Parallels and Conclusions

  • As a child, Dorothea Dix endured very strict parenting and in turn, she may have been strict as a school teacher to her students.
  • Dorothea Dix was also, most likely although not confirmed, abused as a child. The mental scar that this abuse may have left may have helped her be more empathetic to the insane who she observed in the mental hospitals.
  1. To Dix, her parents were nothing significant to her. To her, marriage may have implied children. Therefore, when Edward Bangs and Dix were engaged, she may have backed out because she thought that they would need to have kids. She may have feared that she would treat her children the same way her parents treated her.
  2. At some point after their engagement., Edward Bangs' love became cold and he no longer paid attention to the woman he was about to wed. He left Dix broken hearted and this may have been the reason for why she never married afterwards.

What if I had the same skills as Dorothea Dix?

If I had the same talent as Dorothea Dix, I would most likely be an advocate for women's rights in India. Although in modern day America women have more rights, there are still this is not true for women in India. Women in India are restricted in many ways. They are told to stay in the house and always follow their father's or husband's directions. If they are out on the streets at night, they are very likely to get assaulted and when they go to court for justice, they usually get none. The judge blames the woman for staying out to late and that it was not her assaulter's fault. Women also don't have freedom of speech and therefore, I would stand up to be the voice for these voiceless as Dorothea Dix was to the insane.

Political Cartoon

This political cartoon shows two hands shackled. The hands represent those who were insane and institutionalized. I decided to depict them this way because these mentally ill people were essentially treated as prisoners, sometimes even worse. Dorothea Dix is depicted as the key to the shackles because she was the main reason for an improvement in the care of the mentally insane.


According to Manon S. Parry, Dorothea Dix was very influential in the establishment or expansion of over 30 mental hospitals. The author believes that Dix was a critical figure in changing the how the general public viewed the mentally ill; that they could not be cured or helped. Parry states that she was also very critical of the harsh treatments of the harsh treatment of the insane. Caging, incarceration without clothing, and painful restraint, that is what drove Dix to take up the cause of helping the mentally ill. Manon Parry also suggests that Dix may have suffered from mental instability which then served as an impetus to her focus on the improvement of asylums. The author then continues to give a brief biographical sketch of Dorothea Dix in which she suggests that Dix was neglected as a child. Parry then continues to talk about how Dix was able to mingle with the most influential thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. While teaching, Dix became very ill and Parry believes that at this time that she started to dwell on death and her physical weakness. The author believes that these personal struggles made her more sensitive to the cruel treatment of the insane. Working day and night, and against the limitations of the government on women, Dix made a significant impact in the reform of mental institutes and the public's perception of the insane, states Manon Parry.

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