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Dorothea Dix (1802-87)

Dorothea Dix was the most influential asylum reformer of the 1800s. She was born into poverty in Maine in the United States. At the age of 15 she became a teacher and founded her own school for girls in Boston, Massachusetts aged 20. Running the school and caring for a sick relative occupied her young adulthood. During several periods when tuberculosis stopped her working she wrote children’s books and textbooks. While recuperating in England in 1836-37 she befriended a grandson of moral treatment pioneer William Tuke, and discovered the work of French physician Philippe Pinel. An inheritance during this trip freed her from the need to teach, and on returning to America she dedicated herself to improving conditions for people with mental health problems.

Dix began her humanitarian work in 1840 in Massachusetts. She visited poorhouses and prisons in hundreds of towns, where she found individuals chained or caged in appalling conditions. Dix shared these horrific stories with influential reformers, newspaper editors and government officials. Within two years Massachusetts lawmakers provided funds to establish a state asylum. Dix continued crusading in a dozen other states. She travelled over 10,000 miles and established six public asylums by the end of 1845.

Dix focused on the US government in 1848. She aimed to establish a national fund for the care of people with mental health problems. But the president vetoed the proposal in 1854, so Dix returned to the UK and targeted asylum conditions in Scotland. In 1857 the British government funded improvements to Scottish asylums. Dix also toured Europe to investigate mental health care. She then returned to the US, and was superintendent of US Army nurses during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1866. The rest of her life was spent travelling the country convincing politicians, private donors and foreign diplomats to establish asylums and improve the care of mentally ill men and women.

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T J Brown, Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998)