Army Nurse and Social Reformer

The Army Nurse Corp wasn’t founded until 1901, but women have tended the sick and wounded in various capacities since the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, Dorothea Dix was appointed as the Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army. I was initially drawn to her story as she was first a teacher, like my Aunt Melissa who trained as a teacher before she became a nurse. However, Dorothea Dix’s teacher and nurse stories are subplots to her main focus of advocating on behalf of the mentally ill, the disabled, and the imprisoned. 

Dorothea Dix wasn’t formally trained as a nurse. Her experience lay more in advocating for the mentally ill.  In fact, her stint in the war seems to have been one of her least successful endeavors. She was at odds with other administrators and doctors alike.  

Edith Horton, author of ‘A Group of Famous Women’ said “Many of the surgeons and nurses disliked her. They said she was severe, that she would not listen to any advice nor take any suggestions. The real cause of her unpopularity, however, was that she demanded of all about her entire unselfishness and strict devotion to work. Very severe was she with careless nurses or rough surgeons.” 

Sidenote: Edith Horton’s work was originally published in 1914. Reading the foreword and introduction of her work, I can see her intent was to instill a certain ideal of morality and fortitude. Considering her intended audience, I’m taking her opinion of Dorothea Dix with a grain of salt.

Born in Maine, Dorothea moved in with her grandmother at a young age. Accounts seem to differ on why she didn’t remain with her father – one source suggested alcoholism while another talked of him having a fixation on writing and publishing religious tracts. Whatever the cause, living with her grandmother doesn’t sound like it was much of a picnic. Stern and demanding, her grandmother seems to have molded Dorothea into a formidable force of nature.

As a young woman, Dorothea began tutoring children. She expanded this to founding a school and writing a book ‘Conversations on Common Things’.  At one point, she arranged to teach Sunday school to twenty women incarcerated in Cambridge. This seems to be the catalyst to her championing improved conditions for the mentally ill. When this shift in her life happened, she was thirty-nine years old.

Her ability to effect change and bring attention to the horrid conditions during a time when women couldn’t vote shows she’s a political savvy activist. Whether due to the actual horrible conditions she brought to light, the force of her personality, or a combination of both, she convinced the state legislature to improve conditions.

When Henry B. Stanton went before the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1837 to demand that the state urge Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, he had no qualms about his right to speak.” I AM A MAN: and I address myself to MEN,” he declared. But Dorothea Dix, appealing in writing to the same legislative body six years later on behalf of the insane poor, meekly apologized for her intrusion. 

After that first success in Massachusetts, she spent years working to establish more humane conditions for those in mental asylums. She had several successes in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Illinois.  

One of the first hospitals she helped establish in 1848 was the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum (aka. New Jersey State Hospital). She died there in 1887. It is still in operation today – Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

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