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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Dorothea Dix

b. 1802, Hampden, Maine; d. 1887, Trenton, New Jersey

American educator and social reformer Dorothea Dix was transformed into a passionate crusader for the mentally ill at the age of thirty-nine, when she volunteered to teach a Sunday school class at the East Cambridge House of Corrections in Massachusetts. There she discovered appalling conditions: criminals and the mentally ill, men, women, and children, crowded into filthy cells, unclothed, with no heat or sanitary facilities, subjected to cruel and indiscriminate punishments. She embarked on a fact-finding mission, visiting institutions throughout the state, then compiled her data into a report which she presented to the legislature. Her efforts resulted in passage of a bill for improvement of the Worcester Insane Asylum. Over the next forty years, Dix inspected jails and almshouses in every state east of the Mississippi River, instigating the establishment of thirty-two state-supported institutions for the mentally ill. In the 1850s, she took her campaign to Europe, inspiring the reorganization of mental health facilities across the continent. Her own health, always tenuous, began to fail in 1881, and she lived the remainder of her life in a special apartment at the state hospital she had helped to found in Trenton, New Jersey.