University of New England - Innovation for a Healthier Planet

Dorothea Lynde Dix collection, 1848-1974

Full finding aid (pdf) | Digitized material

Collection Scope and Content

The collection material is related to Dorothea Dix’s work on behalf of society’s disadvantaged and war veterans as recorded in Congressional testimony. In addition is a tribute to Dix written in the 20th century.

Biographical/Historical Note

Dorothea Dix was born Dorothy Lynde Dix on April 4, 1802 to Mary Biglow and Joseph Dix in Hampden, Maine. Dix’s childhood was an unhappy one, as her father lacked ambition and her grandmother often ridiculed her. The strained relationship between Dix and her grandmother caused Dix to change her name from Dorothy – also her grandmother’s name – to Dorothea. At age 10, Dix adopted the Unitarian faith, which she later saw as a very significant point in her life. This was also the time when her younger brother was born, who further diverted her parent’s attention. As she did not find much love or companionship at home, Dix moved out of her parent’s home and established a relationship with Anne Heath at age 14.

Dix was offered a job teaching at a young girl’s school in Worcester and in 1824 she gained a position at the Female Monitorial School, one of the premier schools in Boston at the time, building her reputation as one of the best schoolmistresses in the area. In that same year, her first book was published: Conversations on Common Things, which was in the form of a dialogue between mother and daughter. The book was very popular and remained in print for 40 years. Her next books included Evening Hours (1825) and Meditations for Private Hours (1828). After her next book, The Garlands of Flora (1829) met with a tepid reception, Dix decided to devote her time to teaching.

In 1841, after an inspection at the Middlesex County House of Correction, Dix began teaching Sunday school classes there. She gained a fervent interest in the moral treatment of prisoners as well as those affected by mental illness. Dix toured as many as 35 asylums and houses of correction in one week, so strong was her desire to help. These visits led to her first “memorial” in 1843, which was a long narrative essay meant to present her arguments for the treatment. She presented these memorials to several state legislatures, and eventually one led to the passing of a bill by the U.S. Congress in 1854, although President Pierce vetoed the decision. Dix continued her crusade, however, her determination often viewed as difficult and unpleasant by her contemporaries, who thought, despite her good works, Dix was a narrow-minded religious fanatic. This may have led to her ultimate failure as Superintendent of Nursing for the Union Army during the Civil War. Dix found herself in conflict with both the Union doctors and the Sanitary Commission because of the rigorous standards she set for the nurses working under her. In 1863 Dix’s program was eliminated by the War Department. Still, Dix did not stop her efforts to improve conditions for the insane, but towards the end of her life, while residing in a guest house in the Trenton hospital that she helped to found, her health deteriorated. She died on July 18, 1887 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.