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Dorothea Dix: Nurse/Activist of the 1800's

Dorothea Dix was an important woman of the 19th Century, and the advancement of many causes. Dix was a teacher, writer, advocate for the mentally ill and was a nurse during the Civil War.

Dorothea Dix was born on April 4, 1802 in Hampden, Maine. After spending a rough beginning with an abusive father and alcoholic family, she spent her teen years in Boston, Massachusetts at the home of her Grandparents. It was there that the Grandparents nurtured Dorothea’s desire to learn.

In her early adult years, Dix was a school teacher and also wrote several textbooks. In fact her career as an educator began when she was just 16 years old, when she had a classroom of 20 students between the ages of 6 and 8 years old. This began a career as a teacher that lasted until 1836, when Dix suffered a physical breakdown and was unable to teach. Her doctor suggested that she stop teaching and take an extended vacation, which she did to England. She stayed in England until 1841, when she was fully recovered and returned to Boston.

Upon her return she began teaching Sunday school to the female inmates in the East Cambridge, Massachusetts jail. It was there that she began to see the deplorable conditions that the inmates had to be subjected to. In the jail, she observed that the criminals and the mentally handicapped people were kept in cells that were not heated, did not have any furnishings and were foul smelling.

Upon observing these conditions she went to the courts and got them changed. From that point she became an advocate for the rights of mentally ill patients and went from facility to facility, to get conditions improved.

The next stage of her career began with the Civil War when she was appointed as the Superintendent of Union Nurses. During the war she was in charge of all the nurses who cared for Union soldiers. However, her legacy as a compassionate health care provider which began in her treatment of the mentally ill continued as nurse. Not only did she see to it that the Union soldiers were cared for, but she also made sure that the Confederate soldiers also received care.

After the war, Dix returned to the private world, but the stress of the Civil War had its toll on her. She slowed down in her later years and on July 17, 1887, Dorothea Dix passed away. However, she left a legacy of compassion first as a teacher, then mental health advocate and finally as a nurse during the Civil War. The work of Dix laid the groundwork for future rights activists in the 20th Century.

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