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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by Jenn Bumb


"There are few cases in history where a social movement of such proportions can be attributed to the work of a single individual" (Kovach,1972). Dorothea Lynde Dix was a woman who accomplished much in her life. She was firstly a teacher and then a social reformer for the treatment of the mentally ill. In her life her goals were not defined, she simply did whatever would best help people. She began a change in the United States with mental institutions at the age of thirty-nine. She had covered half of the United States and Europe inspecting institutions for mistreatment by the time she was fifty-four. In a period of fifteen years this woman did more than most people do in a lifetime. Not only did her achievements spark immediate response, her changes are still being felt today with the way mental patients are treated. This one woman accomplished much for humanity within her lifespan.


Dorothea Lynde Dix was born on April 4, 1802 in the town of Hampden in Maine. She was the first child of three born to Joseph Dix and Mary Bigelow Dix. Her father was an itinerant Methodist preacher. Hampden was taken over by the British in the War of 1812, however, the Dix's took refuge in Vermont shortly before the war began. Her family life can be described as abusive and nonexistent. Her mother was not in good mental health and her father was an abusive alcoholic. Once the family was in Worcester they had two more children, Joseph and Charles. Almost immediately Dorothea began to care for her smaller brothers. Later in life she commented that "I never knew childhood" (Schlaifer, 1991). This was mainly because of her parents unstable household and her role of taking over the raising of her brother's. Many times when the fighting in her household got out of control she would take refuge at her grandmother's house, from her father's side, in Boston.

Even though her household wasn't the best she learned many things from her father that would influence many of her choices in life. When she was young he taught her how to read and write, thus when she entered school she was way ahead of everyone else. This developed a passion for reading and teaching, as she taught her brothers how to read as well. Soon after their move to Vermont her parents moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. At this time her mother was suffering from acute, incurable headaches and her father was drinking heavily. It was decided at this time that her parent's were no longer capable of caring for their three children. Madame Dix, Dorothea's grandmother, decided to take the three children to live at the Dix Mansion in Boston. Madame Dix sent her son and his wife off to live with relatives. At this time Dorothea was twelve and had already been accustomed to caring for her brothers, which is something that continued as she lived with her seventy-year old grandmother.

Life at the Dix Mansion was extremely different than Dorothea was accustomed to. Her grandmother was wealthy and demanded that Dorothea act and have interests of a wealthy girl. Her grandmother hired a dance instructor and a seamstress to cater to Dorothea's personal needs. However, Dorothea did not want any of these things. At one point her grandmother punished her severely when she was trying to give food and her new clothes to the beggar children who were standing at their front gate. At the age of fourteen, Madame Dix requested that her sister, who lived in Worcester, take care of Dorothea for a "while" and turn her into a "lady." Mrs. Duncan, Madame Dix's sister, agreed to this since she was always very fond of Dorothea. Once she arrived at her great aunt's house Dorothea immediately took on the role of "young lady" so she could return to her brother's. However, she was to stay with her Aunt for nearly four years.


During this time at her Aunt's house Dorothea attended several parties for her rich relatives and at this time met her second cousin, Edward Bangs. Edward was fourteen years her senior and was a well-known attorney. Edward took an immediate interest in Dorothea and often spoke to her about future plans. Dorothea told him that she planned on being a schoolteacher. He suggested that she start what was called "a little dame school" (1991). Dorothea asked what this was. He informed Dorothea that at the current time girls were not permitted to attend public schools. However, young girls could be taught by other women privately. Edward told Dorothea that if she was interested he would help get her started by finding her students and a place in which to conduct a school. Edward located a store on Main Street in which Dorothea could hold her classes. In the fall of 1816, at age fifteen, she faced her first twenty pupils between the ages of six and eight. She ran this school of sorts for three years. All this time Edward would continually visit her and keep her company. She was forever grateful to Edward for getting her dream of a school to become a reality.

When Dorothea was eighteen, Edward, who was thirty-one, told her that he had fallen in love with her. Frightened and scared she immediately closed down her school and returned to the Dix's Mansion in Boston. However, this did not deter Edward. He followed Dorothea to Boston and purposed marriage. Dorothea accepted his proposal but would not agree to a definite date of marriage. The obvious reasoning for resisting marriage with Edward was that Dorothea feared that she would become like her parents. Marriage to her meant desertion of children, emotional outbreaks, fights and heavy drinking.

Once Dorothea was back in Boston she began reading her grandfather's books that he had received as a student at Harvard University. She wanted to ask her grandmother to use the Dix Mansion as a new school but feared her reaction. However, one day she got the courage to write her grandmother a letter, even though they lived under the same roof, of her intentions. She told her that she wanted to open a school for poor girls to get an education. In addition she would open a separate classroom for wealthy girls, as they deserved an education as well. Madame Dix was thrilled with her granddaughter's plans and heartedly agreed to them, much to Dorothea's surprise. However in the spring of 1821 Dorothea's father died in New Hampshire. At this time in her life she knew that she was not supposed to marry Edward and returned his engagement ring. Her life, from there on, was devoted to teaching children and expanding her own horizons.

From 1822-1836 Dorothea managed to teach her two classes and began writing several books for children. However in 1830, she became very weak and ill. At this time she was asked by her good friend Dr. Channing, if she would accompany his family to St. Croix and be a tutor for his daughters. During this time she was able to fully recuperate and return to her school in Boston. Upon her return in the fall of 1831, when she was twenty-nine, she received news that her good friend, General Levi Lincoln, was elected the new government of Massachusetts and his secretary of state happened to be her former fiance, Edward Bangs. These two individuals would later become influential in getting Dorothea's laws concerning mental health accepted as government policy.

In 1836 Dorothea began taking care of her sick grandmother and continued teaching at her school. However she became more and more drained and eventually had a complete breakdown and severe hemorrhages. Her condition was, what is now called tuberculosis, but then they had no name for it or a treatment. Upon her doctor's urging she gave up her school and took a long vacation set up by Dr. Channing to England. While she was recuperating her grandmother and mother died within a two days of each other. She stayed in England until January of 1841 when she returned to Boston in better health.


Dorothea's second career began when she was thirty-nine years old. In March of 1841 she entered the East Cambridge Jail. She had volunteered to teach a Sunday School class for women inmates. Upon entering the jail she witnessed such horrible images that her life, from that point on, was changed forever. Within the confines of this jail she observed prostitutes, drunks, criminals, retarded individuals, and the mentally ill were all housed together in unheated, unfurnished, and foul-smelling quarters (Viney & Zorich, 1982). When asked why the jail was in these conditions her answer was, "the insane do not feel heat or cold" (1982).

After witnessing these conditions she immediately took the matter to the courts and after a serious of battles finally won. Dorothea then proceeded to visit jails and almshouses, where the mentally ill were housed, in other parts of Boston and soon her investigations extended over the entire state of Massachusetts. She made careful and extensive notes as she visited with jailers, caretakers and townspeople. Finally she put together all this data and shaped a carefully worded document to be delivered to the Massachusetts legislature. She had influence within the legislature, since she was good friends with the governor. In addition her timid presentation of her findings completely won over the legislative board because her conviction was so powerful. After a heated debate over the topic the material won legislative support and funds were set aside for the expansion of Worcester State Hospital.

Dorothea's views about the treatment of the mentally ill were radical at the time. The popular belief was that the insane would never be cured and living within their dreadful conditions was enough for them. However Dorothea, just by bettering the conditions of the inmates, showed people that mental illness wasn't all incurable. She stated that "some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions. I know they are...I could give many examples. One such is a young woman who was for years 'a raging maniac' chained in a cage and whipped to control her acts and words. She was helped by a husband and wife who agreed to take care of her in their home and slowly she recovered her senses." Although Dorothea didn't know the mental processes that were occurring within these individuals she knew that improving their conditions wouldn't hurt them (1982).

Once she had succeeded she traveled to other states and proceeded doing the same process: extensive travel to jails and almshouses in a state, careful descriptions of conditions in jails and almshouses, and preparation of a document comparable to the one which proved successful in Massachusetts (1982). Although her health was very poor, she managed to cover every state on the east side of the Mississippi River. In all she played a major role in founding 32 mental hospitals, 15 schools for the feeble minded, a school for the blind, and numerous training facilities for nurses. Her efforts were an indirect inspiration for the building of many additional institutions for the mentally ill. She was also instrumental in establishing libraries in prisons, mental hospitals and other institutions.

After accomplishing much, she decided to go after her dream in 1848. She sent a document to the United States Congress asking that five million acres be set aside and to be used for the care of the mentally ill. However, with this request she was way ahead of her time by advocating a role for the national government in the care of the disadvantaged mentally ill. In 1854 the bill passed and was approved by both houses but was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. After her fighting Dorothea was physically worn out by trying to fulfill her dream. She decided to travel to Europe to rest from her thirteen years of work for the mentally ill.

Once she got to Europe she had no time to rest for she began her process of inspecting jails and almshouses there as well. She traveled to England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Germany. In a period of 1854 to 1856 she made an effective change in the way Europeans dealt with the mentally ill as she had in the United States. This was a matter of only two years mind you.

Upon her return to the United States in 1854 she continued to travel and investigate many states she had missed before. However at the outbreak of the Civil War she put her energies into being the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses. Although she wasn't effective in this field, she continued to serve throughout the war. In 1881 the state hospital in Trenton, New Jersey opened. This was the first hospital that was initiated and built through her efforts to be opened. Since her health was failing she admitted herself into this hospital. However, with her decline she remained in the hospital for a period of six years. Her death on July 17, 1887 ended a career that was unique in its singleness of purpose and magnitude of accomplishment.


Dorothea Dix has been described as "the most effective advocate of humanitarian reform in American mental institutions during the nineteenth century" (Goldenson, 1970). However, her achievements are only mentioned in five of the current fifty-three textbooks covering the history of psychology. The reason given for this is that she did not contribute to our understanding of the nature of mental disorders. However, she is only in 10% of today's general history books. Although this may seem something hard to fathom Dorothea Dix herself would have wanted it this way. In her life, she was inconspicuous with her work to say the least. She did not place her name on most of her publications. She refused to have hospitals named after her. Expressions of praise and gratitude for her work always produced embarrassment. In later years of her retirement she refused to talk about her achievements and wanted them to "rest in silence". Should that silence continue? (Viney & Zorich, 1982).


Dix, Dorothea L. (1824). Common things, conversations. New York: Munroe & Frances Inc.

Dix, Dorothea L. (1975). On behalf of the insane poor: Selected reports 1842-1862. New York: Ayer Co. Publishers, Inc.

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

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

Wilson, D.C. (1975). Stranger and traveler. Boston: Little Brown.

Viney, W. & Zorich, S. (1982). Contributions to the history of psychology XXIX: Dorothea Dix. Psychological Reports, 50, 211-218.

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