H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

Dorothea Dix was an amazing woman.

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was born in Maine and had a hard childhood, which was marred by her parent’s alcoholism and mental illness. As the oldest of three children, Dorothea frequently ran the household from an early age onwards. In 1814, she moved to Boston to stay with her wealthy grandmother. As a young educated woman, she eventually opened a series of schools and wrote very popular educational and devotional books.

In 1836, after a health breakdown (one of many in her life) forced her to close her last school, she traveled to England for her health and returned with reformist ideas regarding the care and treatment of the insane. At the time, mental problems were considered untreatable and those affected were often locked up in prisons along with violent criminals, exposed to inhumane treatment: deprived of hygiene and proper clothing, chained up in cages and unheated cells, flogged and sexually abused. In 1840-41, Dix visited every public and private facility she could access in Massachusetts, writing unflinching reports on the horrible conditions and urging more state oversight of privately run facilities. Her lobbying resulted in the expansion of the state’s mental hospital and she went on to perform similar investigations in other states and even in Europe.


In April 1861, with the Union mobilizing for the Civil War, she immediately traveled to Washington, taking the last train through Baltimore before the nearby bridges were burned down. Her fame as a hospital reformer earned her a brief meeting with President Lincoln, an authorization to appoint nurses and equip hospitals, and an appointment to Superintendent of Army Nurses in June of the same year.

Nursing was very much a man’s profession at the time, often performed by recuperating soldiers, and Dix threw herself into this man’s world. She rented a house in Washington, D.C. with her own money, running the recruitment of nurses and the collection of donated medical supplies from this location.  She used her authority to covert properties around Washington into Hospitals.  When the Union Army did not have enough ambulances after the Battle of Bull Run, she purchased one with her own money and sent it into service. She also organized supply depots and hospitals in both St. Louis and Yorktown as the war progressed. never taking a single day off through the war. In order to “protect” her nurses from the unwanted approaches of doctors and wounded soldiers, she only accepted plain-looking women at least 30 years old at first and had them wear unadorned dark clothes. Due to her strict rules and her anti-Catholicism which prompted her to reject volunteering nuns, many women ended up circumventing her and finding employment at hospitals through other means. Due to her demanding, uncompromising nature, she earned such nicknames as “General Dix” and “Dragon Dix.” Novelist and poet Louisa May Alcott, best-known for Little Women, served as a nurse under Dix and wrote “no one likes her and I don’t wonder.

Her crusading nature brought Dix in constant conflict not only with her nurses, but also doctors who often resented her “meddling” and her habit to ignore orders from military officials, and the intrusion of women in what they considered to be their own realm. Her constant feuding eventually brought about her downfall. In 1863, a new order forced her to share her authority over the appointment of female nurses with the Surgeon General and allowing doctors to directly assign volunteers and employees to hospitals, effectively depriving Dix of her practical authority. At the war’s end, she formally resigned and her post was abolished, but she continued helping soldiers and their families deal with the hardships of recuperation for another 18 months.
In time, Dorothea Dix’s fame was eclipsed by some of her contemporaries in the medical profession, such as Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and surgeon Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor. Nevertheless, Dix’s unyielding efforts were crucial not only for the reformation of the treatment of the mentally ill, but also for allowing women into the nursing profession.