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Dorothea Dix lived in the 1800s. At a time when women had fewer choices than men did, Dorothea made extraordinary choices for herself. She did not grow up a Unitarian, but she chose to become one as an adult. Another choice she made was to work hard on behalf of other people.
Dorothea made one of the most important contributions to our society by helping to create hospitals for people with mental illness. In her time, there were no hospitals for people with mental problems. People who acted strange or could not communicate because they had difficulty thinking and interacting the same way most others did, were kept in prisons. Often they were chained and given very little clothing. So what if it was cold in the prison? Nobody cared whether these people were cold. Most people thought people with mental illness did not get cold or feel pain. In fact, many people thought that those with mental illness were not fully human at all.
What gave Dorothea Dix a different idea about them? Maybe it was some of her own troubles that made her think more compassionately.
Dorothea Lynde Dix was born on April 4, 1802 in the town of Hampden in Maine . She was the oldest of three children born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow Dix. Dorothea's mother was often sick and her father was not very nice to his family. He often hit his wife and children. The family moved a lot, from Maine to Massachusetts and finally Vermont . When she was 12 years old, her grandmother sent for Dorothea and her two younger brothers to come live with her in Boston . Dorothea's grandmother was wealthy and she expected Dorothea to behave in a certain way. Dorothea only wanted to care for her younger brothers. She was not interested in learning to be a "lady;" which at that time meant taking lessons in how to behave in society.
It took time for Dorothea to learn and understand how to "behave." But one thing that she did very well, and loved in fact, was to read books and study. It was unusual at the time for a young girl to know how to read and write, but Dorothea's father, a Methodist minister had taught her. Even though he was difficult as a father, he did teach her something valuable.
As Dorothea grew up, her grandmother was very strict and very concerned about her status in society. When Dorothea became involved in opening a school for poor children, she wanted to use her grandmother's barn as the school. Dorothea was so worried her grandmother would not let her teach the poor, especially in her own barn, that she wrote her a letter to ask permission. Dorothea's grandmother said yes right away and Dorothea spent years as a teacher.
Dorothea was religious, attending her grandmother's Congregationalist church every Sunday. One day, Dorothea decided to visit the Unitarian church where Dr. William Ellery Channing was speaking. What she heard that day changed her life forever. She heard Dr. Channing preach that God was love and we are all a part of that love and we are called to show that love to others. This was very different from the sermons she heard in her own church. Dorothea became a Unitarian. After she got to know Dr. Channing, he offered her a job helping to care for his children. She lived with the Channing family for six months, traveling with them and tutoring the Channing children.
When Dorothea was in her forties, she visited a women's prison and saw women in chains with no clothes on. When she asked why, the prison matron told her those people were mentally ill and didn't understand anyway. Dorothea was appalled. She was so upset, she called her friends in the Massachusetts government to tell them. They told her they would need a written report before they could act. Dorothea went to every prison in Massachusetts and wrote a detailed report about the conditions for the mentally ill in each one. With her reports, Massachusetts began to open hospitals that treated the mentally ill with respect and gave them good food and warm clothing.
Dorothea Dix began to travel to other states, investigating conditions in prisons, filing reports, and testifying before state legislatures. Some of the hospitals she started still stand. So does the view of the mentally ill that she put forth: Even when someone's words or behaviors cannot be understood by others, they are still a person who deserve dignity, respect and love.
Dorothea deeply valued the right to make one's own choices. She trusted her own choices about the right way to live her life. One of her choices was to become a Unitarian. Another was to work to help people with mental illness in ways they were not able to help themselves. She understood they were people whose right to make their own choices had been taken away. She helped everyone understand that people with mental illness are people like us, who deserve dignity and respect.