Dorothea Lynde Dix: Social Reformer

Dorothea was a nurse by trade. But Dorothea was horrified by the way the mentally ill were treated. She fought on their before for better treatment. Through her hard effort Dorothea managed to create the first generation of American mental asylums.



Dorothea Lynde Dix was born 4th of April 1802 in Hampden, Maine, USA to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow. Dorothea grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and was the eldest of three children, but her childhood was not a happy one. When Dorothea was just twelve she fled from her alcoholic family and abusive family to Boston to live with her wealthy grandmother.

In 1821 Dorothea opened a school patronised by well off families and soon she began teaching poor and neglected children in her home. But between 1824 and 1836 her health had been up and down. With hopes to find a cure for her ailing health Dorothea travelled to Liverpool, England. There Dorothea stayed with the Rathbone family, the Rathbone’s were known as social reformers. It was in Liverpool that Dorothea saw the British lunacy reform movement.

When Dorothea returned to America she conducted a state wide investigation to find out how the state of Massachusetts cared for the insane. Dorothea was appalled with what she found and in her report she stated “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.” Thanks to Dorothea the state’s mental asylum was expanded.


Dorothea went on investigating going to, New Hampshire, Louisiana and Illinois to find out what they did to help people suffering from mental illness. Like in Massachusetts the care was poor. But Dorothea managed to get the state to create the first mental asylum in Illinois. Dorothea carried on putting pressure on states to open the first mental asylums in their state. Because of her work many were built including one Raleigh, North Carolina, which named the hospital after her.

Dorothea carried on with her hard work and tried to get Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane passed. This bill would make states have to put aside so much land to care for the mentally ill. But President Franklin Pierce vetoed it. But Dorothea was not deterred; instead she travelled to Nova Scotia, Canada, to find out how she could help there.

During the American Civil War Dorothea was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses. Dorothea often came into clashes with Doctors has she had strict guidelines on hiring and firing her nurses. All this was to stop vulnerable volunteer nurses being taken advantage of. All this caused Dorothea to become a figure head, but her influence was starting to fall with more women also becoming figureheads. So in 1865 Dorothea resigned.

Fountain in Dorothea’s memory

After the war Dorothea carried on campaigning for the mentally ill. However in 1881 Dorothea’s health had failed so much that she had moved into New Jersey State Hospital. Dorothea died on the 17th July1887.

Dix received many honours in her life such as having a WWII ship named after her. And the US postal stamp also created a stamp in her memory.