Maine: An Encyclopedia

Dix, Dorothea

Dorothea Dix Park

Dorothea Dix Park

was born on April 4, 1802 in Hampden. A park in her honor was created in that town.

She was the first child of three born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow Dix. Her grandfather, Elijah Dix, owned land in Dixmont and Dixfield and lent those towns his name. While a young girl, her family moved to Vermont, then to Massachusetts where, because of dysfunctional family, she soon came to live with her grandmother in Boston.

At fifteen, with the aid of a friend, she opened a school for younger girls. She continued teaching and writing for the next two decades. In 1841, after visiting a local jail and being appalled at the conditions, she began her crusade for penal reform and improved care of the mentally ill, who were often held in those jails.

Dix traveled widely in the United States and Europe promoting reform with substantial success. During the Civil War she served as Superintendent of Union Army Nurses.

According to historian Elizabeth Leonard, Dorothea Dix has been “cast by her biographers as an angel of mercy, a forgotten Samaritan, a crusader, a gentle warrior, a Civil War heroine, a voice for the mad, a stranger and traveler, and, annoyingly, as a ‘girl reformer,'” and more generally as a “New England Reformer.”

She led a life which spanned almost the entire nineteenth century (from 1802 to 1887), and which intersected with many of the century’s most dramatic events, most pressing issues, and most prominent figures. She was known as “a national symbol of benevolence” who directed her concern primarily to institutions designed to care for the mentally ill, but who also devoted energy to improving conditions in the nation’s jails and prisons, and who, during the Civil War, worked to promote the welfare of the sick and wounded from the nation’s battlefields.

Dix was methodical in pursuit of her career, and her repeated storming of various (male) halls of power–including the United States Congress, the White House, and the War Department are legendary.

However, Leonard argues “What she is not, however, is a feminist, nor does she pass muster as a feminist symbol for her readers. Indeed, she is as imperious and as hubristic as she was apparently solitary; she was also as accomplished as any “great man” ever portrayed in a historical biography. She was not, however, particularly likeable–and certainly no ‘gentle warrior’ or ‘girl reformer’. . . . ”

Dix died on July 17, 1887. Since 2005 the former Bangor Mental Health Institute has been  known as the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center.

Additional resources

Brown, Thomas J. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Dix, Dorothea L. Common Things, Conversations. New York: Munroe & Frances,1824.

Dix, Dorothea L. On Behalf of the Insane Poor: Selected Reports 1842-1862. New York: Ayer Publishers, 1975.

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

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

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This entry was last modified: February 04, 2015 03:33 AM

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