Brief Biographical Sketch of Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix was born in 1802 on the Maine frontier. Her father was an itinerant Methodist preacher. Unhappily he was also an alcoholic. In 1812 the family fled the British invasion of Maine, first to Vermont and then to Worcester, MA. Dorothea's mother suffered from severe headaches as well as the abuse of her husband, and Dorothea often had charge of the younger children. After the War of 1812 the children went to live with their paternal grandmother in Boston; Dorothea was supposed to become a proper young society maid. She vigorously resisted and her grandmother asked a sister in Worcester to look after her. This arrangement seems to have worked out better than her earlier domestic situations. At age fifteen Dorothea opened a "dame school," a private academy for young girls. When she returned to Boston two years later (1819) she persuaded her grandmother to allow her to open a similar school in the Dix family mansion. She also reluctantly agreed to marry her cousin, Edward Bangs, an engagement she later broke off. She may well have been so traumatized by her parents' disastrous marriage as to have been unwilling to enter into such a relationship herself. Dix continued to operate private academies, off and on, but her health was not good. So she turned to writing, particularly children's stories. These ran to the conventionally maudlin of the sort Mark Twain would later parody in his "The Story of the Good Little Boy" (1865).

Dix began her religious life as a Methodist. When she moved in with her grandmother, she attended the Congregational church her grandmother did. But she was not satisfied with either. Her objections, at least in part, were doctrinal. She could not accept the literal interpretation of Scripture. She may also have found the emphasis upon sin, hell, and damnation offputting. All carried unhappy associations with her abusive father. In any event, Dix became friends with the Rev. William Ellery Channing, the premier Unitarian theologian of the day, and his family.

By 1841 when Dorothea Dix's career as a reformer began, she was thirty-nine, unmarried, reasonably affluent from inheriting a portion of her grandmother's estate, and established as a writer of children's stories. Her health remained questionable. Then, she agreed to teach a Sunday School class for women in the East Cambridge jail. The experience changed her life. She was horrified by the conditions she saw and decided to do something to improve them. That something took the form of a "Memorial" to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843 detailing conditions in every part of the state. Her charges were highly inflamnatory. Officials of some of the towns whose institutions she criticized leapt to their own defense, sometimes by challenging Dix's truthfulness. But she had her facts straight. And the legislature accepted her Memorial and its recommendations.

This success led Dix to spend the next eighteen years going from state to state, collecting information, and petitioning legislatures to take steps to abolish the horrifying conditions she often uncovered. As in Massachusetts, she often encountered opposition but again and again she prevailed. This trek across the states was necessary because a national bill that she had endorsed, which would have given federal lands to states which in turn would use the proceeds from the sale of the lands to establish trust funds to aid the mentally ill and the retarded, was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce in 1854.

In 1861, at the age of fifty-nine Dix offered her services to the Union and was put in charge of nursing. Over the next four years "Dragon Dix," as some of her nurses called her, worked tirelessly to improve medical care for Union soldiers, work she contined after the war by forming the American Red Cross.