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Life and Legacy of Dorothea Dix Essay

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Updated: May 10th, 2022

Throughout human history, there have been people who have selflessly helped others. Dorothea Dix was one of such people. She was born on April 4, 1802, in Hampden, Maine, Massachusetts. When she was fourteen, she started teaching poor children in her family’s house. Her childhood was very rough and almost non-existent and it showed in her teaching style and in her later life. By 1831, she opened The Dix Mansion Day and Boarding School. Slavery was very prominent in those times and even though it became illegal in 1833, thousands of African-Americans were slaves in the United States. At that time Dorothea established a reputation as an excellent teacher and an author (Colman, 2007). On March 28, 1841, she arrived at East Cambridge jail for teaching Sunday school to prisoners and saw the reality. Mentally ill women were in the worst conditions and Dorothea pressed the jailer, using her connections, to install stoves to keep them warm. This is where her mission began. She went to many jails and mental institutions and fought for the rights of the mentally ill, who at the time were outcasts and treated as criminals. Dix documented all she saw and fought for the rights of the mistreated. In 1846, she studied the treatment of mental illness in Illinois. In 1849, an institution for the care of the mentally ill was authorized in Raleigh and a hospital in honor of Dorothea was opened in 1856. During the Civil War, Dorothea Dix was a nurse with strict rules on who could become a nurse. She wanted only knowledgeable and older nurses to keep order in the hospitals. This caused her some problems, as many doctors and other nurses did not approve of her wishes. After the war, she continued to help the mentally ill, the poor and the prisoners. She was one of the pioneers in the social acknowledgment of mental health. People thought that the disease was a punishment for sins or a curse and would often hide and deny any relation to relatives and friends who were mentally ill. There was no real treatment and people with mental disabilities would often be kept in cages, beaten and not cared for. She was a fierce advocate of human rights and it did not matter to her what cultural, social or racial background these people were. In her work, she was often belittled by the wealthy because she was from a wealthy family herself. Her grandfather was into medicine and slavery and so it was strange that she was doing such good deeds (Wittleman, 2003). Her persistence and determination paid off and got her through the hard times. She did not focus her efforts on her own happiness, instead, she found an outlet in helping others.

If there was a chance to ask her a question about her life, it would be interesting to know where she got the strength to deal with such pain, hardships and limitations. It is known that several times in her life she got very ill and had to travel to England to receive treatment. And no matter what, she would return and continue her mission. She was able to forget her own life and devote all her efforts to other people. She had no childhood and often denied the existence of her parents, which shows how much of a painful time it was. Maybe this is why she felt the pain of others and wanted to help them avoid such a similar fate. Or maybe it was anger towards those who abused their positions of power. But most likely she had a kind heart and felt it her responsibility to do that, which was not done for her.

References

Colman, P. (2007). Breaking the chains: The crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Lincoln, United States: iUniverse.

Wittleman, B. (2003). Dorothea Dix: Social reformer. Mankato, United States: Capstone.

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