Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Dorothea Dix

Dorothea's Early Life

Dorothea Dix was born on April 4, 1802 to Joseph Dix and Mary Dix in Hampden, Maine. She was the first of three children. In her first few years she was a very responsive, loving, and affectionate child. Unfortunately, her father was not home very much and her mother often failed to give her the attention she needed. Dorothea began to look forward to visits with Grandfather Dix because he took time to play and tell her stories of other family members. Until the time she was four, she was an only child and became extremely self -centered. She never really experienced a loving family life.

The early education of Dorothea is uncertain. She was most likely taught to read and write by one of her parents or she may have gone to a village school. When she was twelve, she left home along with her three brothers to live with her grandmother and study in Boston. Dorothea continued to take care of her brothers because she was used to doing so at home.

Her Career

Soon after moving in with her grandmother, Dorothea was sent to live with Mrs. Duncan, her grandmother's sister, to become a "lady". At one of the parties that Mrs. Duncan held, Dorothea met Edward Bangs, who was fourteen years older than her. He offered to help her get started teaching a school for young girls. By age fourteen, she was teaching in Massachusetts. The main issues she stressed in her school were natural sciences and the responsibilities of ethical living. During this time she wrote a few books. They include a textbook called Conversations on Common Things, Hymns for Children, Evening Hours, Meditations for Private Hours, and The Garland of Flora. She continued this until 1836 when she became too ill with tuberculosis to continue teaching. After seeing a doctor who highly urged her to take a long vacation, she left for England. She stayed here for two years. While she was trying to get better, she learned that both her mother and grandmother past away within two days of each other. Upon returning to Boston in better health, she was informed that she had received a large inheritance. But instead of living off that the rest of her life she decided to keep teaching.

Soon after she was offered the opportunity to teach a Sunday School class in East Cambridge House of Correction. She accepted with out knowing what she was about to face. Once the classes started she became amazed at the treatment of the insane and disturbed persons. They were thrown in with criminals, prostitutes, and drunks. Often times they would be left unclothed, in the dark, with no heat or sanitary facilities. Shocked by all of this she decided to travel through the rest of the state to observe conditions in other facilities. She was even more amazed to find the conditions were similar in all places. Now during this time period, Dorothea's views were considered odd. Most people of the time considered the insane and disturbed as incurable. If they were insane or disturbed now, then they would be that way the rest of their life so they did not need any special treatment. However, through the work that Dorothea did over the next twenty years, she showed people that not all people with these types of illnesses were incurable. After much research through facilities, Dorothea submitted her findings to the Massachusetts legislature. Her dignity, feverish compassion, and determination along with the issue itself, moved legislatures into enlarging the Worcester insane asylum.

In the next forty years, she inspired legislatures in fifteen states to establish state hospitals for the mentally ill. Not only that but she also did some work throughout Canada to improve conditions there. Her efforts prompted the building of thirty-two institutions in the United States. There were also libraries established in prisons, mental hospitals, and other institutions.

After accomplishing this much she still did not quit working. From 1854 to 1856, she traveled in Europe to inspect conditions there. She visited England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. Her work was very effective in changing the way Europeans dealt with the mentally ill. In 1845 she published 'Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States.'

After this, in 1861 she was appointed superintendent of army nurses for Civil War service. She accepted with out pay. She made sure to look after the welfare of nurses who had to labor in brutal environments and the men they cared for. She went out of her way to obtain medical supplies from private sources since the government would not provide them. During this time she was often called "Dragon Dix" by some because she was always so stern and often clashed with the military bureaucracy and occasionally ignored administrative details.

After the war she returned to her work with hospitals. She began to travel to states she had not yet visited. She helped establish the first state hospital in 1881. It was built in Trenton, New Jersey. Because of her failing health, she ended up admitting herself into this hospital. She remained there for six years before her death on July 17, 1887.

Dorothea Dix had more than twenty years working for the improved treatment of mentally ill patients and for better prison conditions. She made many great changes despite the views of the public. She is apparently only listed in about 10% of the research material. Research says that she would be fine with this because she worked because she wanted to, not to gain attention or credit. In 1903 the United States Congress gave $20,000 for a monument to her birthplace with this citation, "Certainly no other woman in modern times has done more to earn the gratitude of people of this country than this self sacrificing and devoted woman."


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