Dorothea Dix was born in Maine in 1802. Her father was Methodist minister who spent a lot of time on the road, leaving Dorothea at home with her mother and three younger siblings. While she wasn’t alone, the care for her siblings often fell to her as her mother struggled with debilitating depression. Her father also had his struggles with depression and alcoholism, leading to a lonely and challenging childhood.
It’s likely growing up with two parents dealing with mental illness led Dorothea to be the advocate she became. Not only did she see the effects of the diseases, she saw it in people she loved and who, despite their challenges, loved her. It was her father who taught her to read and write and started her lifelong passion for education.
At age 12, her wealthy grandmother in Boston brought her to live there, and soon Dorothea was putting her love of learning to good use. She started schools all around the area and began teaching as a teenager. In the 1820s, she struggled with poor health and often had to take breaks from her schools, until finally the last was closed in 1836.
It was this year that would begin to define the last 50 years of her life.
A trip to Europe opened her eyes to the current standards for the treatment of the mentally ill. At the time, so little was understood about diseases in the brain which caused heavy stigmatization of these people. Most illnesses were simply labeled as ‘insanity,’ and those diagnosed were typically housed in prisons.
Upon her return to the United States, she began touring every facility she could to document the current conditions for prisoners. She even taught at East Cambridge Prison where she fought for improved treatment. She took her substantial findings to the Massachusetts legislature and demanded something be done.
Shocked by what they heard, those in charge were moved to begin work on a state mental hospital. She then turned her attention to other states like Rhode Island and New York.
In 1861, one week after the Civil War began, Dorothea began serving as a nurse in the Union Army. She was appointed to oversee all nurses in the Union as the Superintendent of Army Nurses. At the time, she was the first woman to be given this much power by the federal government.
It was her responsibility to organize and outfit all the Union Army nurses, and by the reports of many, she set extremely high standards. Most respected her, but she wasn’t particularly well liked. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, worked under her during the War and echoed those sentiments.
Even though her methods weren’t always well-received, they were effective. Her group of women helped grow the role of nurses, both in war and the medical field. The male doctors frowned upon having female nurses, but she continued to fight for more training and opportunities for her women nurses.
Dorothea also gained respect throughout the war because she would treat soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies.
When the war ended, she continued traveling and working toward reform for the mentally ill. Her work included transforming old hospitals into ones dedicated to these patients and building entirely new ones. In 1887, she passed at the age of 85 in one of the hospitals she established.