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Dorothea Dix: A Voice for the Mad

Our society today is driven by a social-works mentality that ignores fiscal realities and seeks to shift our personal responsibility to care for the less fortunate to the government. But there was a time such was not the case. Too often Americans of another time who could not defend themselves were warehoused away out of sight and out of mind. For such a time as the mid-1800s, Dorothea Dix rose to bring a lifelong crusade to make the conditions of the mentally ill more humane. For that reasons she will always be remembered as “a voice for the mad.”

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born to a circuit-riding Methodist preacher but was raised by her grandmother from the age of twelve. Apparently, a love for others was rooted deep within her because, at the mere age of fourteen, she founded a school for young children and continued to educate mostly poor children for the next twenty years. After bouts with ill health, Dorothea traveled to England in hopes of regaining her strength. While there she was introduced to the lunacy reform movement and gained a heart for the plight of the insane.

It was after returning to America that Dorothea’s life calling began to unfold. While leading a devotional for women in an East Cambridge jail, she was introduced to inmates chained in cold, filthy cells, whose only crimes were their insanity.  She soon discovered a secret that society had tried valiantly to hide away in poorhouse, prisons, and at times, in the basements of homes. Dix researched every prison and poorhouse in her home state of Massachusetts. That investigation culminated in her impassioned address to the state legislature in 1843.

Encouraged by success, Dix went on the road with her message of compassion for the mentally ill. She traveled from New England to Louisiana and back in a three-year, thirty-thousand-mile pilgrimage. She became known for writing memoranda to enlighten, embarrass, and compel legislators into doing the right thing for the mentally ill. Along the way she garnered the support of educators and statesmen.  Although Dix’s crusade was her chief preoccupation, she also worked for support to prison reform and schools for the blind.

Shortly following the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, a fifty-nine-year-old Dorothea Dix offered her services to the Union Army and was appointed the Superintendent of Female Nurses. She worked without compensation for the entirety of the conflict. Anxious that immature, marriage-minded women might be disadvantageous to the cause, she enlisted older, less-attractive women and insisted on an equally simple dress code. Despite the restrictions and her authoritarian leadership style, 3,000 women served under “Dragon Dix” during the years of the war.

Because Dorothea treated Union and Confederate wounded alike, she was vilified by radical Republicans and honored by many in the South. She cared about her nurses and soldiers alike and never hesitated to buck the military establishment when necessary.

Following the war, Dix returned to her life’s work. She resumed travel throughout the United States and Europe on behalf of the mentally ill and gained the support of wealthy people. By 1880, she had had founded 32 of the 123 mental hospitals in the country. At the age of eighty, Dorothea couldn’t fight time or aging any longer. Fittingly, she went to live in the guest rooms of the mental hospital in Trenton, New Jersey – the institution she had helped to found thirty years earlier. Five years later, she died on July 18, 1887.

Dorothea Dix was not only a voice for the mad, but also one who helped to heal many of the wounds of the War Between the States. Her tireless work to help the helpless reminded all who came in contact with her that we do have a responsibility to those who cannot speak for themselves.

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