Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Early in the 1800s, the first mental asylums in the United States were built. They were nothing like asylums of today. Many inmates were people the family simply wanted out of the way. And it was easy to get someone committed.

We would be in trouble because a woman who read novels qualified as insane. A wife who didn’t obey her husband, for instance could be lobotomized. If you were ill or handicapped, zap, you’re committed.

If you weren’t insane when you were committed, I’m sure you soon would be. Treatment methods didn’t include anything close to humane. They ranged from steam baths to “steam away the madness” to cold water sprays. Patients were treated as things rather than humans.

This was invented as a tranquilizer chair to
keep patients from harming themselves until quiet.
Would being strapped into this calm you?

Thank goodness for Dorothea Lynde Dix! Dorothea achieved a remarkable amount of good works in her eighty-five years. Her efforts resulted in reform in the mental asylums and prisons.

Her efforts on behalf of the mentally ill and prisoners helped create dozens of new institutions across the United States and in Europe and changed people’s perceptions of these populations. Her own troubled family background and impoverished youth served as a galvanizing force throughout her career, although she remained silent on her own biographical details for most of her long, productive life.

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, on April 4, 1802. Joseph Dix, her father, was an itinerant Methodist preacher who was frequently away from home, and her mother suffered from debilitating bouts of depression. Both her parents were alcoholics. Dorothea was the eldest of three children and ran her household and cared for her family members from a very young age. Joseph Dix, though a strict and volatile man, taught his daughter to read and write, fostering Dorothea’s lifelong love of books and learning. Still, Dorothea’s early years were difficult, unpredictable and lonely.

One of the first asylums in
the United States, early 1800s

 When she was twelve, Dorothea sought refuge with her wealthy grandmother to escape her alcoholic parents. There, her grandmother encouraged her interest in education. At the age of fourteen, Dorothea established the first of a series of schools in Boston and Worcester, designing her own curriculum and administering classrooms. In the 1820s Dorothea’s poor health made her teaching increasingly sporadic, forcing her to take frequent breaks from her career. She began to write, and her books—filled with the simple dictums and morals that were thought to edify young minds—sold briskly. By 1836, persistent health problems caused Dorothea to close her latest school for good. It has been suggested that Dorothea suffered from major depressive episodes, which contributed to her poor health. From 1824 to 1830, she wrote mainly devotional books and stories for children. Her Conversations on Common Things (1824) reached its sixtieth edition by 1869. Her book The Garland of Flora (1829) was, along with Elizabeth Wirt’s Flora's Dictionary, one of the first two dictionaries of flowers published in the United States. Other books of Dix's include Private Hours, Alice and Ruth, and Prisons and Prison Discipline.


  1. Caroline, thank you for an excellent post. I'd read some history about Dorothea Dix, but not to the extent you have provided. The treatment of the mentally ill was appalling then and scary to read some of the reasons a person could be committed to such an asylum! Wonderful to read about Dix's compassion, commitment and determination to bring about changes in both prisons and mental institutions.

  2. Caroline, An illuminating story about Dorothea! I wasn't aware (or remembering?) her work as a teacher at such a young age nor her writings for children. Thank you!

  3. Dix and Nellie Bly both did much for those who unfortunately were committed to 'institutions'. I often wonder what would have happened had these strong and vocal women, along with others, not been willing to follow their hearts and strive to right a wrong they observed. It's not easy, and mental health is still something we seem uncomforable dealing with.
    Thanks for the wonderful post and for writing about it in what I know will be an enjoyable story. Doris

  4. Caroline,

    There were many 'pioneering' women in the area of social reform for women and children. It's good to keep their legacies at the forefront in today's tumultuous social environment as a way to remind people how women had to find a way over, around, and through these hurdles.

  5. I think I would have rather served time in a prison than in an institution for the insane in those early years. Those institutions were horrible places and, were it not for reformers such as Doretha Dix, they would have remained hellish places where suffering people would have continued to be abused or forgotten.

    This was a wonderful article and an informative look into the life of Dorthea Dix and her work, Caroline.

  6. Oh, dear. "Gathering In The Head" would apply to all writers. Does that mean we're all insane?


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