She grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts (Born in Hampden, Maine), then in her wealthy grandmother's home in Boston. She struggled to find a career in traditional female occupations: schoolteacher, governess, writer. None of these pursuits satisfied her ambition, and in her mid-thirties she suffered a debilitating breakdown. In hopes of a cure, in 1836 she traveled to England, where she had the good fortune to meet the Rathbone family, who invited her to spend a year as their guest at Greenbank, their ancestral mansion in Liverpool. The Rathbones were Quakers and prominent social reformers, and at Greenbank, Dix met men and women who believed that government should play a direct, active role in social welfare. She was also exposed to the British lunacy reform movement, whose methods involved detailed investigations of madhouses and asylums, the results of which were published in reports to the House of Commons.
Read more about Dorothea Dix' efforts on the behalf of the mentally ill, free from psych.org.
After she returned to America, in 1840-41, Dix conducted a statewide investigation of how her home state of Massachusetts cared for the insane poor. She published the results in a fiery pamphlet, a Memorial, to the state legislature. "I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." The outcome of her lobbying was a bill to expand the state's mental hospital.
Henceforth, Dix traveled from New Hampshire to Louisiana, documenting the condition of pauper lunatics, publishing memorials to state legislatures, and devoting enormous personal energy to working with committees to draft the appropriations bills needed to build asylums. In 1848, Dorothea Dix visited North Carolina and called for reform in the care of mentally ill patients. In 1849, when the North Carolina State Medical Society was formed, the construction of an institution in the capital, Raleigh, for the care of mentally ill patients was authorized. The hospital, named in honor of Dorothea Dix, opened in 1856. She was instrumental in the founding of the first public mental hospital in Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg State Hospital, and later in establishing its library and reading room in 1853.
The culmination of her work was legislation to set aside 10,000,000 acres of Federal land, with proceeds from its sale distributed to the states to build and maintain asylums. Dix's land bill passed both houses of congress, but in 1854 President Franklin Pierce vetoed it, arguing that the federal government should not involve itself in social welfare. Stung by the defeat of her land bill, in 1854 and 1855 Dix traveled to England and Europe, where she reconnected with the Rathbones and conducted investigations of Scotland's madhouses that precipitated the Scottish Lunacy Commission.
During the Civil War, Dix was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses. Unfortunately, the qualities that made her a successful crusader—independence, single-minded zeal—did not lend themselves to managing a large organization of nurses. She was gradually relieved of real responsibility and would consider this chapter in her career a failure. However, her even-handed caring for Union and Confederate wounded alike, which may not have endeared her to radical Republicans, assured her memory in the South.
Her nurses provided what was often the only care available in the field to Confederate wounded. "The surgeon in charge of our camp ... looked after all their wounds, which were often in a most shocking state, particularly among the rebels. Every evening and morning they were dressed." - Georgeanna Woolsey, a Dix nurse. "Many of these were Rebels. I could not pass them by neglected. Though enemies, they were nevertheless helpless, suffering human beings." - Julia Susan Wheelock, a Dix nurse. Over 5000 Confederate wounded were left behind, when Robert E. Lee retreated from Gettysburg, who were then treated by Dix's nurses, like Cornelia Hancock who wrote about what she saw. "There are no words in the English language to express the suffering I witnessed today ..."
Dorothea Dix spent her last years living as a guest in the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton.