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Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802 - 1887)

By Vasantha Reddi, PhD, MHES

An early nursing pioneer, Dorothea Lynde Dix was a noted humanitarian, reformer, educator and crusader. She is perhaps best known for her patient advocacy in fighting to improve the conditions of jails and mental asylums in North America and Europe.

  • Early US nursing pioneer--predecessor and contemporary of Florence Nightingale
  • Strong advocate for the mentally ill and for prisoners
  • Civil War Superintendent of Union Army Nurses

Advocate for the Mentally Ill and for Prisoners

Departing a 24-year career as a school teacher, Dorothea Dix began her second career at the age of 39 when she embarked on a career as a nurse. Dix was not educated as a nurse, but modern nursing did not yet exist. In fact, Dix became one of modern nursing's pioneers, pursuing the core value that drives the provision of all other nursing care: patient advocacy.

In March 1841, she visited the Cambridge House of Corrections to teach Sunday class for women inmates. The scenes she encountered there, which were nearly identical to those at "mental health" facilities she had toured throughout North America and Europe, totally changed her for life. Mentally ill people were kept in the same facilities with prisoners, chained in dark enclosed spaces, lying in their own filth, without adequate clothing, and abused physically and sexually.1

Dix took the matter to court and fought serious battles, some of which she won. She then began her drive for improvement of jails and care for the mentally ill throughout Massachusetts.2 In 1843, she asked the Massachusetts legislature for reforms to end the inhumane conditions of the mentally ill. In 1845, Dix wrote Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States.3 This work discussed the reforms she wanted the government to implement, including the education of prisoners and the separation of various types of offenders.

During the following decades, her tireless crusade extended far and wide, including outside of the United States.4 She helped to establish 32 new hospitals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Maryland. She also helped establish a government hospital, which later became St. Elizabeth's in Washington, D.C.5 And between 1843 to 1880--the main years that she spent advocating for the mentally ill--the number of hospitals for the mentally ill increased almost ten-fold, from 13 to 123.6 "Where new institutions were not required, she fostered the reorganization, enlargement, and restaffing--with well-trained, intelligent personnel--of already existing hospitals."7 This achievement indicates that her work led to vast improvements in the fledgling profession of nursing. Her efforts eventually resulted in the founding of special facilities for the insane and destitute in the United States, Canada, and at least 13 European countries (England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Germany). She also sent a document to the United States Congress asking that five million acres be given to be used for the care of the mentally ill. Dix was a woman far ahead of her times, advocating a role for the national government in such care.8

"Dragon Dix" of the Civil War

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Dix--at age 59--offered her services to the Union Army. Although Dix was not formally trained as a nurse, her tenacity and exceptional organizational skills impressed the secretary of war, Simon Cameron, who appointed her as the superintendent of Union Army Nurses.9 Before the civil war, army nursing duties were done by ambulatory male nurses. Dix convinced the skeptical military officials that women could also do the job perfectly well and recruited 2000 women into the army. Because of her autocratic style, Dix was nicknamed "Dragon Dix," and she often clashed with the military officials and ignored orders.10 Yet the army nursing care markedly improved under her supervision. She took good care of the nurses who toiled in the harsh environment, and even went to the extent of obtaining health care supplies from private agencies when the government was not willing to provide them.

An Unhappy Childhood

Born in Hampden, Maine on April 4, 1802, Dix's childhood was far from happy and comfortable. Her mother suffered from mental illness and her father was an abusive alcoholic. Despite the adversity, Dix took charge of her family and began to care for her two little brothers. Later in life she acknowledged that she had never had much of a childhood.11 At age 12, she left her unhappy home and went to Boston to live and study at her grandmother's place.

Final Years

After the war, Dix dedicated the rest of her life to improving the lives of the mentally ill, before retiring at the age of 82. Her 41 years of empathy for the mentally ill can be summarized in her own words: "If I am cold, they are cold; if I am weary, they are distressed; if I am alone, they are abandoned."12 Dorothea Lynde Dix died in 1887 at the age of 85 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

last updated August 26, 2005


1. Encyclopedia Brittanica. (1999). Women in American History: Dix, Dorothea. Available online at:


2. Bumb, Jenn. Dorothea Dix. Available online at: .


3. Dix, Dorothea L. (1845). Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States. 2nd ed. Questia. 116 ppg. Available online at:


4. Ordway, Janet Eddy. (1998). Dorothea Lynde Dix: A Woman Ahead of Her Time. Psychiatric News. Available online at:


5. Ibid.


6. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. (2001). Dorothea Dix. Available online at:


7. See Encyclopedia Brittanica.


8. Dorothea Dix. Available online at:


9. Casarez, Tana Brumfield. (May 2000). Dorothea Lynde Dix. Obtained online at:


10. Dorothea Dix. Available online at:


11. See Casarez.


12. Lopez, Anita Maria. Dorothea. Available online at:


Also see:


Dix, Dorothea L. (1824). Common things, conversations. New York: Munroe & Frances Inc.


Dix, Dorothea L. (1975). On behalf of the insane poor: Selected reports 1842-1862. New York: Ayer Co. Publishers, Inc.


Marshall, H.E. (1937). Dorothea Dix, forgotten Samaritan. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.


Tiffany, F. (1891). Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Boston: Houghton Mufflin.


Wilson, D.C. (1975). Stranger and traveler. Boston: Little Brown.


Viney, W. & Zorich, S. (1982). Contributions to the history of psychology XXIX: Dorothea Dix. Psychological Reports, 50, 211-218.


Crystal Reference. (2004). Dix, Dorothea (Lynde). Available online at:


There is a photograph of a painting of Dorothea Dix at: Rutgers University Libraries


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