Dorothea Dix was a lifelong activist who fought for change in the medical field, challenged 19th-century notions of mental illness, recruited nurses during the Civil War, and revolutionized modern nursing practices.
Born in Hampden, Main in 1802, Dix suffered from an abusive childhood. As a child, she moved to Boston to live with her grandmother where she attended school. In her early career she was a teacher and author of children’s books, which included, Conversations on Common Things, 1824, American Moral Tales for Young Persons, 1832, The Garland of Flora, 1829, and Meditations for Private Hours, 1828. Additionally, Dix opened a private school in Worcester, MA, and another later on in Boston, MA.
Interrupted by illness, Dix put her teaching on hold, and traveled to Liverpool, England to rest. Upon her return she taught a Sunday class for women incarcerated in the East Cambridge jail. Here, she encountered inhumane conditions of inmates. After this discovery, Dix visited jails and hospitals all over Massachusetts and neighboring states to document and publicize the terrible conditions she found. She worked to create national humane standards for the care of patients with mental illness. Though the public and politicians did not see need for change, she never abandoned the cause. Eventually she traveled back to Europe to continue reporting on their inhumane hospital conditions.
During the Civil War, she became the Superintendent of Army Nurse for the Union Army. Her army of nurses were successful even in a world overshadowed by men. Together, they aided in the advancement of the role of nurses in the medical field. Dix pushed for formal training and opportunities for women nurses. From 1860 to 1865 she appointed more than 3,000 nurses. At the wars end, she stepped down from her role.
The years following, she continued to fight for reform. Dix fought for and created the necessary changes for many hospitals in the United States and abroad. She died in July 1887 and is buried in Cambridge Massachusetts.