Dorothea Dix

American author and social reformer

Dorothea Lynde Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) was an American advocate on behalf of the indigent mentally ill. Through a vigorous and sustained program of lobbying state legislatures and the United States Congress, she created the first generation of American mental asylums. During the Civil War, she served as a Superintendent of Army Nurses.

Dorothea Dix


  • I found, near Boston, in the jails and asylums for the poor, a numerous class brought into unsuitable connection with criminals and the general mass of paupers. I refer to idiots and insane persons, dwelling in circumstances not only adverse to their own physical and moral improvement, but productive of extreme disadvantages to all other persons brought into association with them. I applied myself diligently to trace the causes of these evils, and sought to supply remedies. As one obstacle was surmounted, fresh difficulties appeared. Every new investigation has given depth to the conviction that it is only by decided, prompt, and vigorous legislation the evils to which I refer, and which I shall proceed more fully to illustrate, can be remedied. I shall be obliged to speak with great plainness, and to reveal many things revolting to the taste, and from which my woman’s nature shrinks with peculiar sensitiveness. But truth is the highest consideration. I tell what I have seen — painful and shocking as the details often are — that from them you may feel more deeply the imperative obligation which lies upon you to prevent the possibility of a repetition or continuance of such outrages upon humanity. If I inflict pain upon you, and move you to horror, it is to acquaint you with sufferings which you have the power to alleviate, and make you hasten to the relief of the victims of legalized barbarity.
  • The condition of human beings, reduced to the extremest states of degradation and misery, cannot be exhibited in softened language, or adorn a polished page.
  • I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.
  • Familiarity with suffering, it is said, blunts the sensibilities, and where neglect once finds a footing other injuries are multiplied.
  • Prisons are not constructed in view of being converted into county hospitals, and almshouses are not founded as receptacles for the insane. And yet, in the face of justice and common sense, wardens are by law compelled to receive, and the masters of almshouses not to refuse, insane and idiotic subjects in all stages of mental disease and privation.
  • I approach you with confidence as the advocate of those who, alas, cannot plead their own cause — of those in whom the light of the understanding is darkened, and who are crushed under the weight of an overwhelming malady
  • Of all the calamities to which ‘humanity is subject, none is so dreadful as insanity. Pinching want, hideous deformity, acute disease, mutilation, deafness, blindness; all these are distressing in their effects alike upon the sufferer and those with whom he is connected
  • In Kentucky alone, of all the States I have traversed, it has not been my painful experience to find the insane poor, filling the cells of poor- houses, or the dungeons of the jails.
  • All experience shows that insanity seasonably treated is as certainly curable as a cold or a fever. Recovery is the rule; permanent disease the exception.
  • Are there not many who will read this page, who, like myself, can recall the lone husband and father wearing out a woful life in the dreary block house, almost within the shadow of his own roof; « without clothes, for if he was furnished, he would rend them in pieces ; without bed, for if that was supplied, it would be destroyed; without bathing or shaving, till he resembles the beasts of the forest; without fire, for with it he would burn the building; in a cheerless block-house, for if a less solid structure, he would break through it! Are there none who remember the dull victim of melancholy delusions, harrassed by unreflecting neighbors, hurrying away to find refuge from their thoughtless persecutions, beneath the waters of the nigh flowing river? Are there none who recollection the son and brother, swinging his clanking chain within a slight and comfortless cabin, clamoring and hooting at the passersby, vociferous, dangerous, and destitute of all appropriate care ; dangerous when at large, and wretched under the weary bondage of his chains? Will none have heard of the delirious epileptic girl, whose troublesome habits and mischievous propensities bring upon her the cutting lash, and who, driven by this merciless discipline, to wilder freaks, and more frequent paroxysms, is an object of deepest pity. These scenes, these hapless conditions of the insane are terrible, but these, and others not dissimilar, are not unusually the result, so much of barbarious dispositions on the part of kindred, (the last case excepted,) as the consequence of ignorance upon the right treatment demanded for the insane, and a failure to realize the great sufferings which ill-directed management create and aggravate. Let all, and each, through out our country, learn the benefits of hospital treatment, and unite to secure these benefits to all the insane, of whatever rank or condition.
  • The dread of severe measures, in the treatment of the insane in hospitals is passing away from the minds of all who seek information concerning them. In these the rule of right, and the law of kindness are known to prevail. Severity and harsh measures of coersion are long since abandoned. Gentleness and persuasion unite with a mild decision, to control the way ward and the perverse, and to quiet the raving maniac.
  • The clarion note of “Kentucky, old Kentucky” ! rings through the land. She claims eminence in the political station amidst her Star-crowned Sisters ; she exults in the far told history of her military renown: but there is a moral eminence far transcending political distinctions ; and a more glorious renown than is sounded from the trumpet of victorious battles:— bid her to a place in the firmament of heaven ; there enthroned by her holy deeds of charity and love, inscribe her name on that scroll of history borne by angels — and sealed by arch-angels for the archives of eternity!

Quotes about Dorothea Dix

  • Is Dorothea Dix throwing off her womanly nature and appearance in the course she is pursuing? In finding duties abroad, has any "refined man felt that something of beauty has gone forth from her"? To use the contemptuous word applied in the lecture alluded to, is she becoming "mannish"? Is she compromising her womanly dignity in going forth to seek to better the condition of the insane and afflicted? Is not a beautiful mind and a retiring modesty still conspicuous in her?
    • Lucretia Mott, "Why Should Not Woman Seek to Be a Reformer?" (1854)
  • Did Elizabeth Fry, of England, neglect her family? No! After rearing her eight or ten children, she went forth and did the things that Howard did, and greater. See Dorothea Dix, and what a ministering angel she has been! Look at the licentiousness of our own city of Penn, and see how Myra Townsend went forth and established a reformatory house for her sisters; see how she gathered them there and improved their situations, and awakened in them a desire for a better life.
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