Dorothea Dix, Mental Health Advocate Pioneer August 8, 2011Posted by Crazy Mermaid in Uncategorized.
As I was doing research on the history of mental illness, I kept coming up with obscure references to a woman named Dorothea Dix. She seemed to have a lot to do with treatment of mental illness, but it was difficult to find out much about her. She wasn’t in many of the history books I was reading at the time about mental illness. Who was this woman? Why hadn’t I ever heard of her?
Dorothea Dix was a teacher who began a second career as an advocate for mentally ill at the age of 39, which was spinster-hood back in the mid 1800’s. She had volunteered to teach Sunday school to a bunch of women inmates at East Cambridge Jail in Massachusetts. What she found there changed her life forever.
She couldn’t believe the horrible conditions the inmates were kept in. There was no distinction made between criminals, mentally retarded, and mentally ill prisoners. All were kept together in filthy conditions. She asked why the prisoners were kept in such horrible conditions and was told that the insane don’t feel heat or cold (Viney & Zorich 1982). From that point forward she dedicated her life to improving the lot of the mentally ill.
Earlier in her life, she had befriended two men who became powerful politicians. One was the Governor of Massachusetts. She made extensive and copious notes about the abominable conditions in the jails and reported her findings to the Massachusetts legislature, begging for more money to improve their lot. She got the funding, and after the mental hospitals in Massachusetts were expanded and cleaned up, Dorothea went to the other States and began her method all over again. She was successful in cleaning up the conditions of the mentally ill in the United States, and then went to Europe and did the same thing. All in all, her contribution to improving the treatment of the mentally ill was enormous.
The reason we can’t find much about her in the history books was because she avoided the spotlight, refusing to take public credit for her work. Despite the extensive funding she managed to secure for hospitals, she refused to have any named after her. She refused to have her name on most of her publications. She was embarrassed if anyone tried to express gratitude for her work and its effect on their lives. And the medical community hasn’t recognized her in general because they think she doesn’t deserve acclaim because she didn’t contribute to our understanding of the nature of mental disorders. Regardless of history’s treatment of her, we owe her a great debt.