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Accomplishments of Dorothea Dix

Info: 1440 words (6 pages) Nursing Essay
Published: 11th Feb 2020

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Dorothea Dix

  • Nekisha Riley


In this paper I have chosen the public health pioneer Dorothea Dix to discuss. Dorothea was the person responsible for devoting her time to the welfare of the mentally ill. She was also and educator and an activist for many. In this paper, I will discuss the impact that Dorothea had on public health, what she did to advance public health, and some of the obstacles that she had to overcome.

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Dorothea Dix also known as Dolly was born in 1802 in Hampden, Maine to Joseph and Mary Dix. Dorothea was the eldest of her two siblings (Norbury, 1999). Dorothea’s father was a Methodist preacher and an alcoholic while her mother suffered from mental illness. Her father was known to be abusive, but Joseph was known for educating his children (Parry, 2006). Dorothea’s father taught her and her two brothers how to read and write.

In 1812, the Dix family took up and moved to Vermont due to the war of 1812 (Gollaher, 1993). Dorothea and her family remained as one until Dorothea felt she had had enough of her dysfunctional family. At this time, Dorothea had dealt with enough of her father’s abuse, so she decided to run away at the age of 12 to live with her grandmother in Boston. Dorothea stayed with her grandmother for a brief amount of time before moving with her aunt in Worcester, Massachusetts (Parry, 2006).

After staying with her aunt for two years, Dorothea opened up her first private school to help children learn to read and write. When Dorothea realize that her school was now a success, she went back to reside with her grandmother Dix in Boston. This is when Dorothea opened her second school and added a night school for the poor, which was one of the first ones in the nation (Gollaher, 1993).

After being an educator for almost four years now, Dorothea met Edward, which later became her fiancé (Gollaher, 1993). The unrealistic thing about her new relationship was her now fiancé was also her first cousin (Parry, 2006). It was about three months later her father died and Dorothea decided that she no longer wanted to get married.

Dorothea spent the next couple of years educating as many people as she could. She was also attending conferences to educate herself. At this point, Dorothea has been working so much without getting the proper amount rest that she has fallen very ill with a severe upper respiratory ailment. It was at this time, Dorothea decided to move to Liverpool, England to stay with the Rathbone family for almost a year while recovering from her illness (Ivan, 1976). The Rathbone family took a liking to her and showed her more affection that her family had.

In 1837, Dorothea returned to the United States . At this point her grandmother passed away which her mother died a couple of days afterwards (Ivan, 1976). She was still ill and did not have the strength to resume teaching yet, so she used the Dix estate and savings to support herself (Ivan, 1976).

In 1841, Dorothea met a ministerial student, who was teaching Sunday class for women who were incarcerated in East Cambridge Jail (Norbury, 1999). The ministerial student became so frustrated with his efforts of trying to teach these women, that he asked Dorothea for advice. When talking to Dorothea, Dorothea realized that this could be an opportunity for her to volunteer at this jail. This was the turning point of Dorothea’s life.

She started volunteering at Cambridge Jail and noticed the living conditions and how the mentally ill was mistreated (Gollaher, 1993). The jail had no heat in any of the living quarters. Those incarcerated were not segregated and all lived together including hardened criminals, feeble-minded children, and the mentally ill (Norbury, 1999). Dorothea was determined to get the prisoners some heat by going through the court system. In Massachusetts, Dorothea had her first memorial for a law that they had permitting them to hold women and men who had mental issues (Ivan, 1976).

In 1848, Dorothea asked Congress to grant 12 million acres of land for the benefits of the mentally ill, blind, and deaf. She had plans to build asylums to help house people that need help and could not receive it (Parry, 2006). Congress approved the bill, but six years later President Franklin Pierce vetoed it (Gollaher, 1993). This was one of the many setbacks that Dix had, but she did not allow it to hinder her from being devoted to helping the mentally ill. After having this minor setback she spent the next decade improving hospitals in Rhode Island and New York (Ivan, 1976). She also established hospitals in thirteen other states along with District of Columbia (DC), Ontario, and Nova Scotia (Ivan, 1976). At this point, in Dorothea’s life she had become worn out from working so hard and not getting any rest.

In 1854, Dorothea decided to travel to Europe and rest (Gollaher, 1993). Once she was in Europe she learned that the private hospitals for the wealthy and the public facility for the poor were very different. Dorothea traveled from 1854 to 1856 to 14 countries and instigated many changes (Parry, 2006).

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In 1856, Dorothea returned to the United States to resume her reform work. When she returns, the country is in an uproar from slavery issues (Gollaher, 1993). She had to remain neutral on the issue of slavery, or if she was anti-slavery the southern states would have refused to hear what she had to say and her reform for mental institution would have not taken place in the south.

Five years later, the Civil War began. Dorothea volunteered her services and became the Superintendent of United States Army Nurses. Dix’s job was to organize the first aid stations, recruit nurses, obtain supplies, and help to set up training facilities and hospitals (Ivan, 1976).

Although Dix did have the determination required to pursue these tasks during the war, she lacked the social skills. Dix’s lack of social skills and training caused her to have some issues with the doctors. The doctors also felt like Dix was stepping over the line for telling them about the unsanitary conditions, their drinking habits, and the treatment of the soldiers. At this point they were treating Dorothea differently and no longer wanted her to be there. Dorothea resigned from her position but remained there to help find missing soldiers, write letters to families letting them know the status of their son’s well-being, and helped soldiers with securing their pensions (Parry, 2006). After the war Dix returned to traveling around the United States and Europe helping the mentally ill, while gaining the support of the wealthy (Parry, 2006).

Some of the hospitals that Dix helped established were now understaffed and overcrowded. Some people were saying that Dix no longer cared for what she had started many years ago. At this time, Dix said that the hospital needed to provide the clients with therapy and that everything would go back to normal. At this time Dix had founded 32 of 123 mental hospitals in the country (Gollaher, 1993). She has now reached the age of 80 years old and has returned to New Jersey due to her ailing health (Norbury, 1999). Dorothea later retired and moved into one of the guest rooms at one of the mental hospitals that she help establish more than three decades before. Dix remained at the hospital for about five years before she died in 1887 (Ivan, 1976).

Dorothea had accomplishments that came along with some obstacles. She was able to help many have a safe place to stay and receive the proper help that they needed. Dix was a pioneer to public health and stayed true to what she believed. While Dix was never married, she was engaged to her cousin for about three months (Parry, 2006). Dorothea has many things in today’s society that remains in her memory like the Dorothea Dix hospital here in my home state of North Carolina.


Gollaher, D.L. (1993). Dorothea Dix and the English Origins of the American Asylum Movement. Canadian Review Of American Studies, 23(3), 149.

Norbury, F.B. (1999). Dorothea Dix and the Founding of Illinois’ Firat Mental Hospital. Journal Of The Illinois State Historical Society (1998-),

Ivan, P.P. (1976). Pioneers in Special Education—Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887). Journal Of Special Education, 10(1), 2.

Parry, M.S. (2006). Dorethea Dix (1802-1887). American Journal of Public Health. pp. 624-625.


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