People you should Know: Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) A teacher and activist for the better treatment of the mentally ill, many that had no one left to care for them. She is credited with the creation of the first generation of mental asylums in the US. In march of 1841 at 39 years old she volunteered to teach Sunday school for woman inmates at the East Cambridge Jail. There she witnessed such horrors that would change her life forever. She found drunks, prostitutes, mentally retarded, criminals, and the mentally ill all housed together in unheated, unfurnished and unsanitary condition’s.  When she questioned such conditions she was told “The insane do not feel heat or cold.”

Dorothea passionately lobbied state legislatures and the United States Congress. At a time when many thought the mentally ill would never be cured and better off left in such conditions Dix stated. “some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions. I know they are…I could give many examples. One such is a young woman who was for years ‘a raging maniac’ chained in a cage and whipped to control her acts and words. She was helped by a husband and wife who agreed to take care of her in their home and slowly she recovered her senses.” She visited many jails and hospitals, taking extensive notes on the conditions she found giving a detailed account to the Legislature. Over the course of 15 years she covered half of the US and Europe.

Dorothea is often overlooked in history because she did not further our understanding of the mentally ill. However her achievements sparked a better future for the ill and are still being felt today.

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