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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

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Woman of the Week – Dorothea Dix

Posted May 15, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Dorothea Lynde Dix was an American activist who worked to change the view of people with mental health issues.

She began a vigorous program of lobbying state legislatures and the United States Congress and created the first generation of American mental asylums. During the Civil War, she served as a Superintendent of Army Nurses.

In 1802, she was born in the town of Hampden, Maine, and grew up first in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was the first child of three born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow, who had deep ancestral roots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

At 12, she sought refuge with her wealthy grandmother, who lived in Boston, to get away from her alcoholic parents and abusive father. She attended school sporadically while she lived with her parents. She became a schoolteacher after moving to Boston, as there were not many career options for women at the time, and teaching was one of them.

In 1819, she returned to Boston and founded the Dix Mansion, a school for girls, along with a charity school that poor girls could attend for free. She began writing textbooks and published her most famous, Conversations on Common Things, in 1824.

She frequently suffered bouts of illness, like coughs and general fatigue. But with medical technology not where it is today, an illness like this could take away from one’s life significantly. These illnesses caused her to have to relinquish her school, but she began working as a governess for the family of Dr. W. E. Channing. It was while working with this family that Dix traveled to St. Croix, where she witnessed slavery firsthand. Teaching and demanding workload seemed to have taken its toll. She began to dwell on the idea of death, and felt overwhelmed by her physical maladies. Biographer David Gollaher, the first scholar to have access to all of her papers, has suggested that she suffered from depression at several times during her life, and that she experienced a type of mental breakdown during this period. These struggles, though undiagnosed, perhaps gave her certain empathy for others with mental illness.

Colleagues encouraged her to take a trip to Europe, as a way to escape life and see something new. She convalesced in England for more than a year at the home of politician and reformer William Rathbone. During her stay, she met prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, and Samuel Tuke, founder of the York Retreat for the mentally ill. She returned to Boston in 1837, just after her grandmother’s death. The inheritance she received enabled her to support herself fully and devote her time to reform and charitable work.

In 1841, she volunteered to tech religion to female convicts. She saw the conditions that people, specifically inmates with mental illnesses were forced to live in and she was appalled. She became determined to make things better. She began traveling around Massachusetts to research the conditions in prisons and poorhouses, and ultimately crafted a document that was presented to the Massachusetts legislature, which increased the budget to expand the State Mental Hospital. She toured the U.S. documenting the conditions and treatment of patients, campaigning to establish humane asylums for the mentally ill and founding or building additions to hospitals in Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina.

During the American Civil War, Dix was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army, beating out Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Dix set guidelines for nurse candidates. Volunteers were to be middle aged and plain-looking. They were required to wear unhooped black or brown dresses, with no jewelry or cosmetics. Dix wanted to avoid sending vulnerable, attractive young women into the hospitals, where she feared they would be exploited by the men they worked with and served. Dix often fired volunteer nurses she hadn't personally trained or hired.

She often feuded with doctors over her ways, and many of the doctors didn’t want women in their hospitals at all. To solve the problem, the War Department introduced Order No. 351 in October 1863. It granted both the Surgeon General (Joseph K. Barnes) and the Superintendent of Army Nurses (Dix) the power to appoint female nurses. It also gave doctors the power of assigning employees and volunteers to hospitals – something Dix had done. She eventually resigned in 1865, and considered this a failure in her career.

Despite her stern ways as a supervisor, she was kind and caring in treating patients, and instructed her nurses to do the same. She cared for both Union and Confederate soldiers alike, and her hospital was usually the only place a Confederate soldier could be treated. When Confederate forces retreated from Gettysburg, they left behind 5,000 wounded soldiers. These were treated by many of Dix's nurses.

After the war, she resumed her work fighting for mental health rights. In 1881, Dix moved into the New Jersey State Hospital, Morris Plains. The state legislature had designated a suite for her private use as long as she lived. Although she was sick, she carried on correspondence with people from England, Japan and elsewhere. Dix died on July 17, 1887. Many memorials have since been constructed in her honor, and she was elected “President For Life” of the Army Nurses Association.

Sources:

http://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/dorothea-lynde-dix

http://www.biography.com/people/dorothea-dix-9275710

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470530/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothea_Dix

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#1

Re: Woman of the Week – Dorothea Dix

05/16/2017 10:14 AM

IMHO, people with mental issues generally need their views changed. Usually, leaving the source of chaos, to a more pastoral, serene setting is a good idea.

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#2
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Re: Woman of the Week – Dorothea Dix

05/16/2017 10:38 AM

C'mon James, that's like suggesting somebody with diabetes find a nice pastoral setting to 'get over it.' Many mental illnesses have a physiological/biochemical basis that have nothing to do with one's 'views.' The brain is an organ and as such is just as susceptible to malfunction as any other organ.

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Re: Woman of the Week – Dorothea Dix

05/16/2017 10:55 AM

Hey I was merely joking around a bit. On the other hand, serene settings, along with proper diet, and applied corrective medicine can make a huge difference in how the depressed feel, for example. Sometimes being far from the madding crowd is actually a good thing.

By the way, I think perhaps up to 60% of diabetes can be related to unhealthy stress levels, in a weird sort of biochemical feedback mechanism that makes it worse.

Surely the fact we can understand our own brains is remarkable, and yes, they do break.

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Re: Woman of the Week – Dorothea Dix

05/17/2017 7:16 PM

Nutrition has been proven to have a strong influence on many brain conditions.

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