Dorothea Lynde Dix

The Woman who changed the world of the mentally ill

History has very few instances of immense social development being attributed to the work of a single individual. Dorothea Lynde Dix is indeed one such woman who served the cause of the mentally ill. Todays perception and treatment of the mentally ill may be attributed to her. Born on April 4, 1802 in Hampden town of Maine, she was the eldest child of Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow Dix. The father was a traveling Methodist preacher and an abusive alcoholic. The mother did not have a sound mental health either and the couple had two other children younger to Dorothea. When the family later moved to Worcester, the couple had two more children. Dorothea had to care for her younger brothers. Several times when household fights got out of control, Dorothea would seek her grandmother at Boston. Dorothea was later to comment that she never knew childhood. She developed a passion for teaching and in 1816 when she was fifteen she started a school with the help of her second cousin Edward Bangs. The school was located in a store and had about twenty pupils between the ages of six and eight. Those were the days when women were not permitted to attend public schools.

Dix was religious but without religious bias or bigotry. She was a liberal Christian associated with the early Unitarianism given her friendship with the Unitarian minister Dr. William Ellery Channing. Dr. Channing inculcated a sense of both faith and consciousness within her. Dix was inspired and developed a sense of personal mission, leading her to the path of self-financed social reform. Despite having so any admirers and friends, she chose to remain unmarried and didnt want a permanent home. She wanted to be an independent woman, with a sense of mission backed by spirituality and passion.  It must be noted here that even as Dix was eighteen, Edward had told her that he was in love with her and wanted to marry her. However Dix resisted the marriage proposal by not agreeing to a definite date of marriage. The reason for this was that Dix was scared that her life would become like that of her parents. Marriage to her involved desertion of children, fights, heavy drinking and seeking refuge.

In the March of 1841, when Dix was 39, she volunteered to teach a Sunday school class for a jail in Massachusetts, which laid the foundations for major reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill. At the East Cambridge jail, she noticed that criminals, prostitutes, drunkards and the mentally ill were all put together in pathetic conditions and were shivering. Upon raising objections, she was told that the insane and the mentally ill do not feel the heat or the cold. Her confrontation of the existing system initiated a lifelong crusade for the mentally ill. Though mentally ill people from well to do families were cared and even had paid caretakers for them, those with no funds and means suffered. She went to court and saw her first victory in a series of victories. The conditions at the East Cambridge jail were improved and heating was provided too (Viney et al, 1982). Continuing with her crusade, she observed inmates and their living conditions in the jails, asylums, hospitals and other care centers. Her observations and reform proposals were provided to the Massachusetts legislature, which approved her efforts and provided funds for upliftment of hospitals. Dix was increasing consulted on site locations and design of the new facilities. In cases where funds were lacking, she struggled to raise them too. In 1845 she wrote her book Remarks on Prison and Prison Discipline.

After Massachusetts she reached out to New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky and New Jersey, studying and documenting the living conditions of the mentally ill. In 1841 Dix started her surveys of the asylums for the insane in the US. By 1848, Dix had traveled over 60,000 miles, documented hundreds of institutions all through the country, having visited over 9000 mentally ill, retarded or epileptic people (Points of Light Institute, 2008). As a result of her efforts, about 32 state mental hospitals were either developed or expanded. She was also instrumental in improving the therapeutic programs within hospitals. These successes encouraged her to act similarly in the Midwest and South states. Here Dix received varied success, but failed in getting a federal legislation passed for financial support for mentally ill, blind and the, deaf and dumb. Dix then left to Scotland and England, where she impressed Queen Victoria and the English Parliament to improve the state of asylums in Scotland (Advameg, Inc., 2010).

Dorotheas perception of insanity was very radical for the time. She saw insanity as a disease, which should not be treated on par with crime. She was outraged at insane people being housed in prisons. Those days, the mentally ill were chained and housed away from public contact. The belief, which existed then, was that the mentally ill could never be cured and that living in dreadful conditions didnt matter much to them. Dix tried to transform such attitudes and even provided instances where mentally ill were cured by proper cure. The insane were not tolerated by the neighbors (Lightner, 1999). She discussed and sought humane treatment for the mentally ill. Apart from distinguishing them as curable and incurable patients, she sought treatment for those who are curable and comfort for those who cant. Dix tried to prove by evidence that complete restoration was possible with prompt treatment. Although she didnt know the processes behind mental illnesses and their cure, she realized that improving their conditions wouldnt hurt them.

Dix in 1848, sent a proposal to the US Congress asking for the allotment of five million acres for establishing a mental care facilities. By this proposal Dix was definitely well ahead of her times, by suggesting a role for the federal government in caring for the mentally ill. The relevant bill was passed in 1854, which was approved, by both the houses. The bill was however vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. Later traveling across Europe in 1855, Dix visited several countries, portraying the plight of the mentally ill people through her strong convictions and persuasive ability. Dorothea Dixs efforts in Canada led to the establishing of Nova Scotias first mental hospital. Dix investigated the pathetic conditions of the mentally ill in Nova Scotia in 1849, which at that time was the only Canadian province that did not have a mental hospital. The efforts to create a mental institution were too slow. However the provincial government approved the plans when Dixs efforts and progress achieved around the world, were highlighted.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, she offered her services to the Union Army even though she was 59. Although she had no formal training as a nurse, her uncommon organizational skills saw her appointed as the head of the Union Army nurses. (Casarez and Tana Brumfield, 2000). Prior to the Civil War, only male nurses performed army nursing duties. Dix however convinced the bureaucracy that women too could do the job, which paved the way for the recruitment of about 2000 women into the army. In the army she was noted for her rigid stand.  With the war being over, she went back to her work with the mentally ill. In 1881 she moved permanently to her quarters in the New Jersey State hospital, which to her was her first child. Here she lived till her death on July 17, 1887.

It must be noted here that though her involvement and efforts for reform did not contribute directly to the field of psychology, she contributed tremendously to the social history of psychology. However psychology is a unique multi-disciplinary field, whose intellectual history is complemented by social history. Dorothea Dix is perceived as the biggest advocate of humanitarian reforms in the 19th century, for the mental institutions of America. However her current standing and recognition of her contributions make one wonder if she has been neglected. Here achievements are noted in only five of the fifty-three textbooks covering the history of psychology. The reason attributed to this state is that Dix did not contribute to the understanding of mental disorders. It is also painful to note that Dix appears in only about 10 of todays general history books. Perhaps this is because Dix herself wanted it this way. She did not place her names on most of the publications neither did she allow hospitals to be named after her. She was embarrassed whenever praise and gratitude were showered on her. In her retirement years, she even refused to speak on her contributions and achievements. She wanted to remain beyond the realms of publicity and this is perhaps what she wanted.


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