Historic Humanist Series

Dorthea Lynde Dix


April 1998

Dorthea Dix is perhaps best known for her work fighting to better the condition of jails and insane asylums. She was born in Hampden, Maine (then an area of Massachusetts, regarded as a frontier) in April, 1802. Beginning roughly in 1841, Dorthea began a crusade for reform in the practices of caring for the mentally ill. Due to the situation at the time, this also meant she pushed for prison reform. In 1845, Ms. Dix wrote Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States. This work discussed anticipated reforms, including the education of prisoners and the separation of various types of offenders.

Dix's appointment as Superintendent of Army Nurses in 1861 generated criticism that would remain consistent throughout the five year assignment. Her well-known insistence that nurses be middle-aged and homely meant turning away a well trained nurse, based simply on physical attributes. Although Dix remained controversial throughout the war, the field of nursing continued to grow after the war, inspired by women such as Florence Nightingale, Dorthea Dix, and those active in the USSC. Dix remained the superintendent of nurses until 1866, when she returned to her true interest of campaigning for better treatment of the mentally ill.