Local Heart, Global Soul

December 31, 2009

The most amazing Dorothea L. Dix…

(photograph © Kiwidutch)

We are walking around the centre of Boston and come across a beautiful fountain. The inscription reads “Dorothea L. Dix Foundation”

I don’t actually know who this person was, but another inscription on the other side of the fountain makes me want to find out more.

So… here is a not so small summary about this amazing woman…

Dorothea Lynde Dix was a teacher who went on to become a pivotal force in the the reform of treatment  of  the mentally ill.  At the age of thirty-nine, she started a fundamental change in American mental institutions and by fifty-four had covered half the USA and was inspecting institutions for abuse of the patients.

In this fifteen year period she achieved  an astounding amount and the effects of her work not only gained an immediate response but also live on today in the manner  that people who suffer mental illess are treated.

Dorothea was born on April 4, 1802 in  Hampden, Maine. The eldest of three children of Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow Dix. Her father was an itinerant Methodist preacher.  Her family life can be described as abusive and nonexistent. Her mother was not in good mental health and her father was an abusive alcoholic.

Even though her formative years were not the happiest, she learned many things from her father that would influence her life. He taught her how to read and write, putting her adead of the class then she entered school, this in turn developed her passion for reading and teaching and she subsequently taught both her brothers to read.

At this time  the family moved to Vermont and her mother was suffering from acute, incurable headaches and her father was drinking heavily and they were deemed that they  longer capable of caring for their children. Madame Dix, Dorothea’s grandmother, took the children to live at the Dix Mansion in Boston.  Dorothea was twelve and already  accustomed to caring for her brothers, a situation that continued as she lived with her seventy-year old grandmother.

(photograph © Kiwidutch)

Her grandmother was wealthy and demanded that Dorothea act and have interests of a wealthy girl. Her grandmother hired a dance instructor and a seamstress to cater to Dorothea’s personal needs. However, Dorothea wished for none of these trappings.

Her grandmother punished her severely when she was trying to give food and her new clothes to the beggar children who were standing at their front gate. At the age of fourteen, Madame Dix requested that her sister,Mrs. Duncan, who lived in Worcester, take care of Dorothea for a “while” and turn her into a “lady.”, Once she arrived at her great aunt’s house Dorothea immediately took on the role of “young lady” so she could return to her brother’s. However, she was to stay with her Aunt for nearly four years.

During this time Dorothea attended several parties for her rich relatives and met her second cousin, Edward Bangs. Edward, fourteen years her senior and was a well-known attorney. He took an immediate interest in Dorothea. Dorothea told him her plans to be a schoolteacher. He suggested she start  “a little dame school”. Girls at this time were not permitted to attend public schools. but could be taught by other women privately.

Edward located a store on Main Street in which Dorothea could hold her classes. In the fall of 1816, at age fifteen, she faced her first twenty pupils between the ages of six and eight. She ran this school of sorts for three years. All this time Edward would continually visited and kept  her company.  Edward, now thirty-one, told Dorothea now 18,  that he had fallen in love with her. Frightened and scared she immediately closed down her school and returned to the Dix’s Mansion in Boston. However, Edward was not detered. He followed Dorothea to Boston and purposed marriage. Dorothea accepted but would not agree to a definite date.

The obvious reasoning for resisting marriage  was that Dorothea feared that she would become like her parents. Marriage to her meant desertion of children, emotional outbreaks, fights and heavy drinking.

Once  back in Boston she began reading her grandfather’s Harvard University books.  She wanted to ask her grandmother to use the Dix Mansion as a new school but feared her reaction. However, one day she got the courage to write her grandmother a letter, even though they lived under the same roof, of her intentions. She told her that she wanted to open a school for poor girls to get an education. In addition she would open a separate classroom for wealthy girls, as they deserved an education as well. Madame Dix was thrilled with her granddaughter’s plans and heartedly agreed to them, much to Dorothea’s surprise.

(photograph © Kiwidutch)

However in the spring of 1821 Dorothea’s father died in New Hampshire. At this time in her life she knew deep down that she was not destined to marry Edward and returned his engagement ring.

From 1822-1836 Dorothea managed to teach her two classes and began writing several books for children. However in 1830, she became very weak and ill. andwas asked by her good friend Dr. Channing, if she would accompany his family to St. Croix and be a tutor for his daughters. During this time she was able to fully recuperate and return to her school in Boston.

On her return in the fall of 1831, aged twenty-nine, she received news that her good friend, General Levi Lincoln, was elected the new government of Massachusetts and his secretary of state happened to be her former fiance, Edward Bangs. These two individuals would later become influential in getting Dorothea’s laws concerning mental health accepted as government policy.

In 1836 Dorothea took care of her sick grandmother and continued teaching at her school. However she became more and more drained and eventually leading to a breakdown and severe hemorrhages. Her condition is now known as “tuberculosis”, but at this time there was no name for it or cure. Upon her doctor’s urging she gave up her school and took a long vacation set up by Dr. Channing to England. While she was recuperating her grandmother and mother died within a two days of each other. She stayed in England until January of 1841 when she returned to Boston in better health.

Dorothea’s second career began when she was thirty-nine years old. In March 1841 she entered the East Cambridge Jail having volunteered to teach a Sunday School class for women inmates. There she witnessed such horrible images that her life, from that point on, was changed forever. Within the confines of this jail she observed prostitutes, drunks, criminals, retarded individuals, and the mentally ill were all housed together in unheated, unfurnished, and foul-smelling quarters.  When asked why the jail was in these conditions the answer was, “the insane do not feel heat or cold”

Immediately took the matter to the courts and  finally won. Dorothea then proceeded to visit jails and almshouses, where the mentally ill were housed in other parts of Boston and soon her investigations extended over the entire state of Massachusetts.

She made careful and extensive notes as she visited with jailers, caretakers and townspeople. She shaped a carefully worded document to be delivered to the Massachusetts legislature.  In addition her timid presentation of her findings completely won over the legislative board because her conviction was so powerful.

Dorothea’s views about the treatment of the mentally ill were radical at the time. The popular belief was that the insane would never be cured and living within their dreadful conditions was enough for them. However Dorothea, just by bettering the conditions of the inmates, showed people that mental illness wasn’t all incurable. She stated that “some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions.  Although Dorothea didn’t know the mental processes that were occurring within these individuals she knew that improving their conditions wouldn’t hurt them .

She traveled to other states and proceeded doing the same process: extensive travel to jails and almshouses in a state, careful descriptions of conditions in jails and almshouses, and preparation of a document comparable to the one which proved successful in Massachusetts .  Although her health was very poor, she managed to cover every state on the east side of the Mississippi. She played a major role in founding 32 mental hospitals, 15 schools for the feeble minded, a school for the blind, and numerous training facilities for nurses.

Her efforts were an indirect inspiration for the building of many additional institutions for the mentally ill. She was also instrumental in establishing libraries in prisons, mental hospitals and other institutions.

In 1848, she sent a document to the United States Congress asking that five million acres be set aside and to be used for the care of the mentally ill. . In 1854 the bill passed and was approved by both houses but was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. After her fighting Dorothea was physically worn out by trying to fulfill her dream. She decided to travel to Europe to rest.

Once she got to Europe she had no time to rest for she began her process of inspecting jails and almshouses there as well. She traveled to England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Germany. In  of only two years: 1854 to 1856 she made an effective change in the way Europeans dealt with the mentally ill as she had in the United States.

Upon her return to the United States in 1854 she continued to travel and investigate many states she had not managed to visit before. However at the outbreak of the Civil War she put her energies into being the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses. Although she wasn’t effective in this field, she continued to serve throughout the war. In 1881 the state hospital in Trenton, New Jersey opened. This was the first hospital  initiated and built through her efforts.

Since her own health was failing she admitted herself into this hospital. She remained in the hospital for a period of six years. Her death on July 17, 1887 ended a career that was unique in its singleness of purpose and magnitude of accomplishment.

Dorothea Dix has been described as “the most effective advocate of humanitarian reform in American mental institutions during the nineteenth century” (Goldenson, 1970). However, her achievements are only mentioned in five of the current fifty-three textbooks covering the history of psychology. The reason given for this is that she did not contribute to our understanding of the nature of mental disorders. In her life, she was inconspicuous with her work, and she did not place her name on most of her publications. She refused to have hospitals named after her.

Expressions of praise and gratitude for her work always produced embarrassment. In later years of her retirement she refused to talk about her achievements and wanted them to “rest in silence”.

( I have amened a lot of this text from Wikipedia)…. what brilliant reading and that an amazing life !

It just goes to prove that one single person on a mission with a passion to make things better really can !!! Bravo Dorothea, maybe you did not wish for accolades but you certainly deserve them. I can only hope that somewhere, somehow in my life I could do something that reaches out even in tiny measure to what you have done.

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