Dorothea Dix: Unitarian Reform

Dix (1802-1887) found her commitment to reform not in evangelical Christianity and the revival but in their antithesis, Unitarianism. Her father, an abusive alcoholic, was a Methodist itinerant preacher. Her stern paternal grandmother, with whom Dix and her siblings went to live when she was a teenager, pushed her into the Congregational Church. But Dix found her way into the congregation of William Ellery Channing, the most celebrated Unitarian minister of the day. It was when she volunteered to teach a Sunday School class for women inmates of the East Cambridge prison in 1841 that Dix found her life's work as a reformer. She was shocked by the terrible conditions in the prison and felt an obligation to change them for the better. This led her to undertake a systematic tour of the jails and prisons throughout Massachusetts. She detailed her findings in her 1843 Memorial to the state legislature. The Memorial may be the single most important document in the history of mental illness and its treatment in the United States. It is not too much to say that the treatment of the mentally and defective falls into two parts, before the Memorial and after it.