Dorothea Dix

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Dorothea Lynde Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) was an American activist on behalf of the indigent insane who, through a vigorous program of lobbying state legislatures and the United States Congress, created the first generation of American mental asylums. During the Civil War, she served as Superintendent of Army Nurses.

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Early life

She was born in the town of Hampden, Maine, and grew up first in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then in her wealthy grandmother's home in Boston. She fled there at the age of twelve, to get away from her alcoholic family and abusive father. She was the first child of three born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow. Her father was an itinerant worker.[1][a] About 1821 she opened a school in Boston, which was patronized by the well-to-do families. Soon afterwards she also began teaching poor and neglected children at home. But her health broke down, and from 1824 to 1830 she was chiefly occupied with the writing of books of devotion and stories for children. Her Conversations on Common Things (1824) had reached its sixtieth edition by 1869. In 1831 she established in Boston a model school for girls, and conducted this successfully until 1836, when her health again failed.[2] In hopes of a cure, in 1836 she traveled to England, where she had the good fortune to meet the Rathbone family, who invited her to spend a year as their guest at Greenbank, their ancestral mansion in Liverpool. The Rathbones were Quakers and prominent social reformers, and at Greenbank, Dix met men and women who believed that government should play a direct, active role in social welfare. She was also exposed to the British lunacy reform movement, whose methods involved detailed investigations of madhouses and asylums, the results of which were published in reports to the House of Commons.

Antebellum career

After she returned to America, in 1840-41, Dix conducted a statewide investigation of how her home state of Massachusetts cared for the insane poor. In most cases, towns contracted with local individuals to care for people with mental disorders who could not care for themselves, and who lacked family and friends to provide for them. Unregulated and underfunded, this system produced widespread abuse. After her survey, Dix published the results in a fiery report, a Memorial, to the state legislature. "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."[3] The outcome of her lobbying was a bill to expand the state's mental hospital in Worcester.

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