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Dorothea Dix: Crusader for Humane Treatment

Until 7th grade, I lived on the grounds of a state mental hospital, where my father was a psychiatrist.  So, no wonder my first biography was “Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix.” Her crusade began today–March 28, 1841, a cold, blustery day when, in response to a request to teach Sunday School lessons to women prisoners, she went to a jail in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  To her horror she found two indigent mentally ill women confined in cages made of rough boards–disheveled, shivering women whose only crime was their illness. No stove heated their filthy pen.  Why was there no heat, she indignantly asked the jailer. Because “lunatics” don’t feel the cold, he replied. Appalled and outraged, she launched a successful campaign to get stoves installed.  Instilled with a great purpose Dorothea Dix, a brilliant investigator and lobbyist, devoted the rest of her life to providing humane treatment for people with mental illness in the U.S. and abroad. She also served as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union during the Civil War, raised money to build fountains for horses (there’s a plaque to her on a restored fountain in Boston) and provide life saving boats at stations along the east coast, and advocated for prison reform.  Renowned in her day, Dorothea Dix died in 1887. Tributes resounded from as far away as Japan. The image is the first day cover of a U.S. postage stamp issued in her honor. (On a research road trip for my book about DIx, I drove to Hampden, Maine, and discovered a marvelous stone arch and park dedicated to her memory.)

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