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Dorothea Lynde Dix 1805 ~ 1887


Dorothea Lynde Dix

In all past ages the weak, the lame, the blind and the insane were supposed to be beyond cure or even help. Only within recent years have the strong strived to help the condition of those they often pitied but more often despised.

The insane particularly were often judged as under the control of Satan, and any effort to lessen their sufferings or to improve their condition seemed the same as helping the evil one. In 1730 the first asylum for the humane treatment of these unfortunates was established in England, and in 1750 Benjamin Franklin and others in the New World added a department for demented people in the Pennsylvania Hospital. But little was done for the benefit of the insane, either in this country or m Europe until Dorothea Dix with strong and unyielding purpose began her heroic work in their behalf. She was eminently fitted for the work because she herself had seen only the hard side of life. Her home with her grandparents in Boston was a gloomy, joyless one, and she herself said later in life, "I never knew childhood." Yet, the very hardness of this experience fitted her for her life work. After years of teaching, her mind was opened to the neglect and suffering of weak-minded and insane. It is hard to believe the shocking conditions which existed at that day in the treatment of the insane, the patients being confined in cells with no floor but the earth, no windows, consequently no ventilation. The straw on which they slept was changed once a week, at which time the occupants were given their only exercise. Such were the conditions Miss Dix found when she visited the prisons, hospitals and retreats in every state this side of the Rocky Mountains. As she gazed at the appalling sight of human beings in cages, closets and cellars, many of them naked, most of them chained, and all of them thrashed into obedience, she realized that a radical and immediate change was necessary.

In Providence at last was found a small asylum that gave its patients wise and kind treatment, but it was much overcrowded, and Miss Dix at once resolved to gather the means for enlargement and make the institution an object lesson. She went to the richest man in the city, who was also notoriously close-fisted, and to him she related with her wonderful power of feeling and eloquence the pathos and tragedy of the condition of these benighted souls. To the surprise of everyone the wealthy man listened spellbound, and at length exclaimed: "Miss Dix, what do you want me to do?" "Sir, I want you to give $50,000 toward the enlargement of the insane hospital in your city," replied Miss Dix. "Madame, I will do it," said the rich man, with perhaps the first desire of his life to help suffering humanity, inspired by this young woman. This was the beginning which has changed the whole conditions of the institutions of our country, and started work along the right line for the insane and criminals.

In the Civil War Dorothea Dix offered her services to the Secretary of War as a nurse, and under her direction much was done to improve the hospitals and so relieve the suffering of those sick and wounded. At length, when four-score years old, well worn out with her work, she was invited to make her home in the asylum in Trenton, N. J., one of the many institutions founded by her. Here she was visited by a multitude of friends, while a continual flow of letters from all over the country brought to her the grateful expressions of the many she had aided.

She died July 19, 1887, and one of the many prominent men who passed judgment on her work at this time said, "Thus has died and been laid at rest in the most quiet and unostentatious way the most useful and distinguished woman America has yet produced."

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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