Dorothea Lynde Dix

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Dorthea Lynde Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix, from Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada, by Henry Hurd.
Born April 12, 1802(1802-04-12)
Hampton, Maine
Died July 17, 1887(1887-07-17)
Morris Plains, New Jersey
Nationality American
Known for Advocate for the mentally ill

All important crises in historical movements are associated with the lives and conduct of marked individuals; persons who have advanced some original or discriminating conception as to duty or public policy, and who, through enthusiasm, strength of purpose and the force of personality, have initiated and conducted to a successful issue a notable departure in government, moral and religious convictions, social habits, or institutional methods.

The history of insanity, in conformity with this universal law, has its conspicuous pioneers, its epoch-making masters, its heros and heroines. In this connection many American specialists are entitled to more or less prominence. But from the standpoint of personal labors to promote practical reforms in public provision for the insane, the work of Dorothea L. Dix stands pre-eminent.

Her surroundings in childhood were humble and she had a hard struggle to obtain an education, followed by a toilsome period spent in school-teaching. But in spite of these difficulties in her early life and of the semi-invalidism which, later on, hampered her physical activity, she achieved a national and even international reputation as a practical philanthropist, her remarkable personal influence over public officials and governmental policies contributing greatly to her success. In the 40 years of her public work she was instrumental in founding or enlarging more than 30 state institutions for the proper custody and right treatment of the insane, becoming an acknowledged power in this respect not only throughout the United States, but in European countries as well. It is impossible to estimate how many men and women, suffering from mental disease, she extricated or preserved for public jails and private pens, or how many others enjoyed release or exemption from galling chains and other cruel devices for restraint as a result of her humanitarian efforts.

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born April 12, 1802, at Hampton, ME., where her parents were temporarily located. Her father, Joseph Dix, was descended from good Puritan stock, which for generations had maintained its stamina in New England. He himself, however, seems to have been lacking in mental balance and unable to maintain his wife and three children suitably. Having no established business occupation he repeatedly changed his residence. His legal domicile was Worcester, Mass., but for short periods he endeavored to make a living in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. In religious matters his zeal outran his discretion, and at times his spiritual fervor led him to compose, publish and distribute fanatical tracts. In her childish days the little Dorothea was often called upon to paste and stitch these unprofitable leaflets. The mother evidently lacked force of character sufficient to counterbalance her husband's weak judgement, or even to command the respect of her eldest child.

Under such family circumstances, deprived of the care and attention, the material comforts and the agreeable associations requisite to satisfy normal childish longings, the bright, sensitive, proud-spirited Dorothea suffered grievously. In after years she once made the pathetic avowal, "I never knew childhood."

When she was 12 years of age, her native good sense and awakening ambition asserted themselves. She refused to contribute further aid to her father's tract-making schemes and repaired to her grandmother's house in Boston, where she was sure of a welcome and had the advantages of a superior home, good schools, association with cultured people and a loving intimacy with her grandmother, a dignified and circumspect, but kind and judicious women, so commonly found among Puritan families in New England. Her grandfather, a physician and chemist, was a well-known man, long remembered for his strong character and unique personality. He was industrious, thrifty, fertile in resource and scrupulously honest. Endowed with clear, far-sighted judgement, unusual energy and conspicuous courage, he often originated new and startling propositions in business, both public and private. In fact, his confidence in his own wisdom and conscientious intentions made him at times somewhat aggressive in matters of public interest. Dorothea seems to have inherited many of his prominent traits. Unfortunately his death, when she was seven years of age, deprived her of his affection and counsel in her struggle for a position of independence and influence.

Dorothea, after two years with her grandmother in Boston, occupied in diligent study, returned to Worcester to open a school for children. This first school was a moderate success. She was a faithful and earnest teacher, but an exacting disciplinarian. The school proved to be short-lived, and was discontinues after a few months. With added experience and a better comprehension her own educational limitations, Dorothea determined to fit herself to teach older pupils and to give higher courses of instruction. With this intention she returned to Boston, where she studied industriously and read much in general literature, until in 1821, at the age of 19 years, she considered herself competent to teach young ladies and opened a day school in Boston.

She not only wished to gain personal independence for herself, but also to support and educate her two brothers. The small house in which the school was opened soon became overcrowded and was exchanged for her grandmother's residence, know as the "Dix Mansion." The high reputation which the school acquired attracted pupils from prominent families in Boston and elsewhere throughout New England. With the rapid development of her school, Miss Dix gradually assumed many arduous duties: she managed the household, taught in the day and boarding school, nursed her aged grandmother, and finally from a lively sense of duty to the poor oped a charity school. These labors proved too much for her strength, and at the end of six years her health failed. In 1827, when the Dix School was suspended because of her disability, she entered the family of William Ellery Channing, D. D., as governess and spent several successive summers at Portsmouth, R.I.

In 1830 she went to the West Indies with the Channings, and in this benignant tropical climate, surrounded by new and luxuriant vegetation, entertained by unfamiliar customs, and fascinated by the novelties of a new world, she found complete mental relaxation. Various branches of natural history attracted her attention, everything new in her experience receiving searching investigation and being catalogued in her memory, if not in her voluminous note-books. Geological formations, landscapes, flora, fauna, harbors, shores and ocean-currents, in short, all the novel phenomena within her conscious horizon, engaged her critical interest now that she had time and opportunity to indulge her natural thirst for information. The keen discrimination shown in her reports and the value of the specimens which she collected elicited letters of appreciation form Audubon and Silliman.

At the end of her sojourn at St. Croix, Miss Dix found herself refreshed both in mind and body by the tropical Climate, together with a complete relief from responsibility and hard work. In 1831 she returned to Boston and reopened the "Dix Mansion Day and Boarding School," an enterprise which embodied her most cherished ideas. Miss Dix's riper age, fuller knowledge and wider experience made her an authority on education, while the ardor which vitalized all her projects made the school so popular that many pupils had to be rejected. The curriculum included little besides the common English branches of study but the drill in deportment and fundamentals of a good English education was thorough and correct. For five years Miss Dix labored unsparingly in her school, but her undermined constitution could not support the strain involved, and in 1836 her health again failed. Her nervous system became exhausted, she suffered from pleuritic pains, and had frequent hemorrhages.

In these five years she had established an enviable reputation as a teacher; she had housed, clothed and educated her dependent brothers, and she had accumulated a modest competence for future self-support, but all this had been accomplished at the cost of physical health.

The best medical opinion which Miss Dix could obtain recommended a voyage to Europe and a temporary residence in the south of France or Italy. She acted upon this advice, and, in the company of a friend, sailed from New York in April, 1836. When England was reached, however, she was too weak to travel by rail. Some English friends of Dr. Channing found her on a sick-bed in a Liverpool hotel and insisted upon removing her to their country home, a few miles from the city. In this way she became an inmate of the hospitable dwelling, where she remained for 14 months a welcome guest and was most tenderly cared for, much of the time as an invalid or at best as a convalescent.

Miss Dix's mother and grandmother both died during her stay in England, and in 1837 business interests necessitated her return to America. Her health, though improved, was not firmly re-established, but as her brothers were successfully established in business, and the funds she had accumulated in teaching, increased by an inheritance from her grandmother's estate, yielded an income sufficient for her support, she no longer obliged to keep up her school.

About this time she became interested in prisons and prison reform and in 1841, when 39 years of age, she entered upon the career which was to make her known to the world as a practical philanthropist. Never did the "massive gates of circumstances turn upon a smaller hinge." Some theological students in Cambridge had undertaken to teach a Sunday school in the House of Correction. One of them, J.T.G. Nicholas, hesitated to undertake a class of 20 female prisoners and, on confessing his trepidation to his mother, was urged to consult Miss Dix, who quickly solved the problem by taking it upon herself the task of instructing the women convicts. Through this work she acquired an inside knowledge of conditions in the institution. She discovered overcrowding, uncleanliness and the herding together of the innocent with the guilty and the same with the insane, a condition of things which at that time characterized the prisons and almshouses not alone of Massachusetts, but throughout the world.

Her first step was an effort for the relief of a few insane persons confined in bitterly cold rooms. She urged the official in charge of them to provide sufficient heat, but without success; on which she immediately applied to the judge, then holding court in the adjacent court house, and obtained an order requiring the keeper of the prison to heat the prisoners' quarters as she suggested.

Having reason to suppose that the insane in other jails and almshouses were improperly, if not brutally, treated, she began a personal investigation of all such institutions. The discoveries she made were shocking. In her school-teaching days of autocracy, justice with mercy was her guiding principle of action, and prompt action was her rule. This deeply grounded sense of the majesty of the moral law had not grown dim with age and experience, but intimate association with cultured people in the North and South and in England had somewhat softened her self-assertion, and she was now able to conceal her indignation until she could command the fitting occasion for reproof. There had never been a time when she would not have braved martyrdom if moved by the sense of righteous wrath, but she had now become mistress of tact and self-restraint, to be exercised when the object which she had in view demanded them. Impetuous as she was, even in her mature years, she always took the precaution to provide sufficient ammunition before she opened her batteries upon her opponents. In this, as in all her subsequent campaigns for the insane, she began by securing al lthe important facts, to which end she canvassed the whole state, carefully inspecting jails and almhouses and giving close attention to obscure cells and dark corners in order that no distressing case might escape her. She wrote accurate descriptions of everything disclosed by her search that deserved criticism, and arranged all this information in a systematic scheme.

In her first great public contest, she fortified her own convictions by consultations with a number of intimate friends; a group of broad-minded, public-spirited citizens, such as Rev. Dr. W.E. Channing, Charles Sumner, Horace Man, Rev. Robert C. Waterson, Drs. S.G. Howe, Luther V. Bell and John S. Butler.

    Hurd, Henry M., William F. Drewry, Richard Dewey, Charles W. Pilgrim, G. Alder Blumer, and T.J.W. Burgess
    Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada. Volume 1. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1916.