(April 4, 1802–July 17, 1887)
Charles F. Ritter
Dorothea Dix’s life’s work evolved in three distinct stages. For nearly twenty years between 1818 and 1836, she supported herself as a teacher and writer. In 1841, she embarked on the second phase of her life’s work, a nearly singlehanded campaign to improve the care of the insane poor. The third endeavor of her life began in 1861, when Dix offered her skills as a hospital and nursing supervisor to the U.S. government during the Civil War. Dix later looked back with chagrin on that third stage of her life as superintendent of nurses: “ ‘This is not the work I would have my life judged by,’ ” she said (Tiffany, 339). Perhaps she felt her war work unworthy because it did not result in great physical structures such as the asylums she helped build during her two-decade labor as an advocate for the insane poor. But what she did accomplish in Washington during the war was extraordinary and exemplary. She recruited, trained, and placed hundreds of female nurses in Washington hospitals; coordinated the collection and distribution of vast amounts of clothing, foodstuffs, and hospital supplies to wounded soldiers; and urged hospital management reforms. This phase of her life was as noteworthy as the earlier phases. In acting boldly in America’s greatest domestic crisis, Dix set standards for nurses’ training and hospital management that would survive her and stand as a legacy that is perhaps more positive than the great asylums she willed into being.
Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine (then a district of Massachusetts), on April 4, 1802, the only daughter and first of three children born to Joseph and Mary (Bigelow) Dix. Joseph Dix was the ne’er-do-well son of Elijah and Dorothy (Lynde) Dix. Expected to pursue medical studies at Harvard and follow in his wealthy father’s footsteps, Joseph Dix lacked drive and ambition and was dismissed from Harvard in 1797. His father tried to interest him in the apothecary trade, but that was a disaster. Joseph further alienated his father in 1801 by marrying Mary Bigelow, an impoverished woman in frail health. Joseph and Mary fled his family and moved to Vermont, where Joseph