Dorothea Dix was a famous nurse who fought for the rights of individuals with mental illnesses. She is perhaps best known, however, as the superintendent of nurses for the Union Army in the Civil War.
Dorothea Dix was born on April 4, 1802, in Hamden, Maine. She grew up in Massachusetts. At the age of twelve, she went to live with grandmother in Boston to escape her abusive father and dismal childhood. From an early age, Dorothea was an ambitious and determined woman. At the age of fourteen, she started her first school and gained a reputation as a capable teacher and strict disciplinarian. Work was always paramount in Dorothea’s life, and she started a more formal school in 1821 that catered to Boston’s rich and elite. During this time, she eagerly tutored poor and neglected students in her own home. Although Dorothea’s chronic health problems caused her to leave her school, she spent her recovery time writing children’s books. By 1836, her health had deteriorated to such a point that her school was forced to close permanently. Later that year, she decided to sail to Europe to spend time recovering on the coast of Italy. Unfortunately, she fell ill in England, where she was taken care of by the Rathbone family. William Rathbone was a wealthy humanitarian who fought for better care of the “mentally disordered” of England. It was he who influenced Dorothea’s ideas on the moral and effective treatment of America’s insane, which involved less use of mechanical restraints and more productive activities.
In 1841, Dorothea toured a prison in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was horrified at the conditions in which those classified as “insane” were forced to live. They were underfed, dirty, and in some cases, chained to the walls or forced to sleep on stone floors. Dorothea decided to make it her life mission to improve the quality of life for such people. For the next two decades or so, Dorothea traveled the United States lobbying for the mentally ill. Her incredible efforts resulted in numerous studies, bills, and changes in legislation that improved the lives of the mentally ill. Furthermore, her efforts resulted in the formation of many hospitals specifically for the mentally ill.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Dorothea was named superintendent of Union Army nurses. Although she was in poor health, she organized women into nursing corps, inspected hospitals, and raised money for medical supplies. Furthermore, she insisted on equal treatment of both Union and Confederate soldiers, which angered some Northern Republicans.
After the war, Dorothea continued her travels and helped in the rehabilitation of facilities in the Southern United States. In 1882, and in ailing health, she moved into an apartment designated for her at the New Jersey State Hospital. She died on July 17, 1887.
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