Dorothea Lynde Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) was an American activist who fought on behalf of the mentally ill. She lobbied state legislatures and the United States Congress for their rights and created the first generation of psychiatric hospitals, formerly known as “insane asylums.”
Dix was born in Hampden, ME but grew up in Worcester, MA and eventually ended up in Boston living with her grandmother. In an effort to escape an abusive family life, she left there at the age of 12. In her early life she established two schools and was a teacher. The schools catered mostly to wealthy families. She taught the poor and neglected children in her home. Her physical health was not very good. During times of sickness she focused on writing. In 1824 she published Conversations on Common Things.
In 1836 she traveled to England in hopes of finding a cure for her issues with her physical health. While in England she met people very interested in social reform as well as people who felt the government should play a direct role in social welfare. When she returned to America in 1840 she surveyed Masachusetts to discover what the state of affairs were for the poverty stricken, mentally ill. Most towns at the time contracted with individuals to care for those who did not have the funds or family available to care for them. What she found was that the system was producing widespread abuse as it was underfunded and unregulated. After conducting this study she published her findings in Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts 1843. In this publication she states, “I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.” The outcome of this lobbying would help to expand the state psychiatric hospital in Worcester. From there she traveled across many states to repeat the work she had done in Massachusetts.
Dix was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army during the American Civil War. At odds with various policies she submitted her resignation in August of 1865. She then continued her work of advocating for the improvement of care for prisoners, the disabled and the mentally ill.