Every Wednesday on social media is Woman Crush Wednesday. A lot of women in history don’t get the recognition they deserve for their efforts and accomplishments, so I’ve decided that henceforth on Wednesdays, I’ll be focusing on the ladies that helped shape the world we live in today. Before this past school year let out, I did a report on Dorothea Dix for my health class, who is an incredibly interesting woman who played a huge role in changing society in the nineteenth century. Following my report, I decided to expand upon my research and found out more really neat information about her. So today, Dorothea Dix will be the start of my Women in History Crush Wednesdays.
Dorothea Lynde Dix was a very influential women in the worlds of mental health and women in the hospital work force. She was determined, independent, hardworking, and disciplined, all of which made her a great political advocate, activist, and health care leader.
Dix was born on April 4th, 1802, and at the early age of twelve ran away to live with her grandmother in order to escape her family’s alcoholism and abuse. As a child, and continuing throughout her life, Dix was extremely interested in helping others. She began teaching at the age of fourteen, and soon founded two schools in Boston, one of which was largely criticized by the local upper class because it focused most on educating poor and neglected children.
In her mid-thirties, Dix fell ill with a sickness that couldn’t be treated in the United States, so she moved temporarily to Liverpool, England in order to receive treatment. Her stay coincided with the British Lunacy Reform of 1845, the movement that included investigations of madhouses and asylums to better understand the atrocities occurring within the facilities. After receiving treatment, Dix returned to the United States and conducted her own investigation of mental institutions in Massachusetts, only to find the same harsh conditions at play. She presented her “Memorial” report to the legislators of Massachusetts describing the horrific practices of mental asylums and calling for reform and protection for patients from the government, which the politicians initially turned down. Despite rejection, Dix persevered for forty years until she won her Massachusetts case and cases in thirteen other states in the United States and Canada, adding more of her findings from the asylums to her argument, working day and night for change. One report claims that during a session of legislation, Dix remained on the premises of the government building until her bill was passed, earning her the nickname “Dragon Dix” for her passionate intensity. Her most effective and influential change to health care laws and policies was the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane, which, after passing in Congress, put aside over twelve million acres of federal land for the use of publicly available asylums. To a similar effect, Dix met with Pope Pius IX, who personally commissioned for the construction of a new hospital for the mentally ill after reading her reports.
Dorothea Dix also played a major role in the American Civil War. Dix was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army in 1861, and although she considered her work for the army a personal failure and resigned in 1865, she helped pave the road for women in the hospital work force. Dix faced strong opposition from Army doctors who did not want women as hospital nurses, to which she responded with a push for what became Order No. 351, an ordinance that gave hiring power of nurses solely to the Surgeon General and the Superintendent of Army Nurses. Fearing exploitation of female nurses by male doctors, Dix also set extremely specific guidelines for hiring and training women to be nurses, including a dress code (which mimicked the iconic uniform of Dix’s career hero Florence Nightingale), age requirements, and a necessity to have a certain amount of training occur with her personally. These guidelines lead to Dix gaining a reputation of being a strict and inflexible leader, but a leader of a highly efficient and effective nurse corps.
It could be assumed that because Dix served for the Union Army, she only treated and cared for Union soldiers. However this was no way the case. Dix is quoted as saying that “[wounded Confederate soldiers] were nevertheless helpless, suffering human beings” and that she “could not pass them by neglected.” Towards the end of the war, Dix had treated over five thousand Confederate soldiers, in addition to the multitude of treated Union soldiers.
Though her efforts during the war and during her mental health care reform were tremendously effective and revolutionary, Dix was considered by many as a person who was difficult to work with. This difficultly was in part due to her independent nature. Dix was often considered stubborn, as she refused to comply with rules or practices that she felt were ineffective or non-beneficial. Driven with a passion to change things to fit her vision and treat patients to her best ability, Dix sometimes failed to connect with fellow nurses and healthcare providers on a human level, and treated them more as coworkers than friends. Eventually, her personality and style of authority were understood by both her and others, and upon resigning from her position as Superintendent of Army Nurses, Dix reentered the advocacy world as an independent activist again.
In her final years, Dorothea Dix lobbied more reform bills in a plethora of states and sporadically continued nursing. She continued working until the day she died, and since her death on July 17th, 1887, has had an educational boat in Canada, a Navy transport ship during World War II, and several hospitals around the country christened in her name.
To me, Dorothea Dix is a tremendous inspiration. She saw the problems in different areas of society, and set forth to fix them. Dix worked her whole life to better the lives of others. And she didn’t limit herself to simply one area of change – she worked in health care, in asylums and jail houses, in war efforts, in education. If you want to learn more about the amazing things Dorothea Dix did, check out these History, Bio, Webster, and National Center for Biotechnology Information articles.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays! Be heard!