Dorothea Dix

by Jadie from Irvine

"If I am cold, they are cold; if I am weary, they are distressed; if I am alone, they are abandoned."
Photograph of Dorothea Dix (Britannica Online for Kids)
Photograph of Dorothea Dix (Britannica Online for Kids)

           Dorothea L. Dix was born on April 4, 1802, in Hampden, Maine. She was born to troubled parents; her father was a religious fanatic and alcoholic who was abusive to his daughter and her mother was mentally ill. When she was 12 she moved to her grandmother's house in Boston, Massachusetts, to escape her unstable household. Because her family failed to provide any emotional needs, Dix matured at an early age. She later said that she "never knew childhood" (Bumb). At age 14, she initiated her first school as a teacher and in 1819, she founded the Dix Mansion, a school for girls. In 1824, she published Conversations on Common Things, a book for children and parents that was designed to help parents answer their children's questions. The questions were typical questions asked by children such as, "Why do we call this day Monday? Why do we call this month January?" (AVHS) Her book reflected her strong passion for education, as she provided answers that revealed her understanding of the natural world and were thorough enough to satisfy the curiosity of any child. In 1841, she visited the East Cambridge Jail in Massachusetts to work as a Sunday teacher, however, she became horrified by the terrible conditions of the prison. She saw prostitutes, violent criminals, the disabled, and the mentally ill confined together in unheated and stinking compartments. When she asked why they were left in these conditions, a prison authority's answer was that the "the insane do not feel heat or cold" (Bumb). Dix was furious by the insensitivity of the prison system and she set a new goal for herself; she decided to participate in a prison reform, known as the Asylum Movement in the 19th century. From then, she began to travel around the United States to investigate prison and mental facility conditions. In 1843, she wrote A Memorial to the Massachusetts Legislature after seeing conditions in Massachusetts mental hospitals to petition for the expansion of the state insane asylum in Worcester. Consequently, a bill was successfully passed to fund for the mentally ill at the Worcester State Hospital in response to her memorial. After investigating numerous hospitals and prisons, in 1845, she wrote the Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States where she discussed the reforms she wanted the government to carry out, such as the education of prisoners and the separation of the prisoners corresponding to the type of crime they committed. During the Civil War, she was appointed superintendent of the United Army Nurses. After the war, she continued traveling to assist in the development of facilities that provided medical care to prisoners, the disabled, and the mentally ill. However, in 1870, she contracted Malaria from exhaustion and ended her traveling. She then moved into an apartment in New Jersey where she continued her philanthropic undertakings. She died in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 17, 1887, leaving honorable legacies behind; she ultimately established "32 mental hospitals, 15 schools for the [mentally retarded], a school for the blind, and numerous training facilities for nurses" (Bumb).However, most importantly, she changed the amount of respect and care prisoners and the mentally ill received.

East Cambridge Jail, MA (Valley Advocate)
East Cambridge Jail, MA (Valley Advocate)

           Dorothea Dix believed that prisoners were capable of reform and were worthy of an appropriate amount of respect from society. Dix represented the spirit of the Second Great Awakening because during this religious movement, people believed that self-reflection and devotion to religion would allow them to earn salvation. Many early American Calvinist groups had emphasized the evil nature of human beings and believed they could only be saved through the grace of God. The new evangelical movement, however, emphasized their innate ability to improve their situation. Dorothea Dix believed in moral reform which was based on her belief that "however heinous the crime a prisoner committed, he or she could be reformed" (Kokontis). Her belief in the goodness of humanity motivated her to put extensive effort into prison reform.For moral reform, she focused on solitary confinement to prevent the spread of further vice, labor to [increase the prisoner's] skill, and self-reflection [through bible study]" (Kokontis). Her efforts eventually changed the perspective of the public; by the end of the 19th century, her belief that prisoners were capable of reform influenced society to treat prisoners more humanely and the conditions of numerous prisons were improved. Dix also had radical views on treatment for the mentally ill; she believed that the mentally ill could be cured whereas the popular belief was that they were incurable. For example, she used a compassionate approach with her treatment rather than the use of abuse and confinement. For example, Dix helped a young woman who was "chained in a cage, and whipped to control her acts and words" by sending her to a home of a kind couple that took care of her and helped her slowly recover (New World Encyclopedia). By challenging societal norms, Dorothea Dix successfully proved that the mentally ill were equal human beings and were capable of change through care and love. Therefore, Dix is a hero of the prison reform movement, who not only improved facilities but also changed the hearts of the public. 

Conversations on Common Things by
Conversations on Common Things by

           Dorothea Dix's works and accomplishments are highly reputable, however, her diligence was the most important aspect that allowed her to succeed in her field. The fact that she was a woman did not stop her from pursuing her goals, although she preferred not to become well-known to public. She was extremely humble and refused to place her name on the books that she published(such as the Conversations on Common Things as shown in the picture above), refused to have hospitals named after her, and was always embarrassed by praise and gratitude. Although she was reserved outwardly, her inner will was as strong as any other reformer. She kept her values although they were radical to the public, and was able to prove them. I hope to be as persevering as Dorothea Dix with my choices and beliefs that I think are right and eventually find innovative treatments to mental disorders. I wish to become a psychologist who helps patients in a compassionate way and develops theories and treatments influential to the medical psychological field. I am hoping to provide help and care to special needs children in a therapeutic arts facility with a friendly approach just like how Dix approached her patients. Dorothea Dix is a great role model to many aspiring to work in the health field, and I hope I can follow her diligence and compassion.

Page created on 7/8/2014 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 7/8/2014 12:00:00 AM

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Extra Info

All research was originated from the sources recorded in the bibliography section. Direct citations are indicated with parentheses within the text throughout this page.


Bumb, Jenn. "Dorothea Dix." [Online] Available

Dix, Dorothea. "Memorial To The Legislature of Massachusetts." [Online] Available

Kiritsis, Paul. "Short Biography of Dorothea Dix: Who is Dorothea Dix?." [Online] Available

Britannica Kids. "Picture: Dorothea Dix." [Online] Available

Kokontis, Megan. "Dorothea Dix : Student, Reformer and Crusader." Constructing thePast. 2007. Vol. 8