The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that 2020 is the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. To celebrate, we’re highlighting individuals that made a major impact on the nursing profession.
Today, we’re telling the story of Dorothea Dix, a social reformer and Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army, who changed the face of nursing with her fierce intellect and deep compassion.
Read on to learn about Dorothy Dix’s fascinating life and important contributions to the nursing profession and the American healthcare system.
Dorothea Dix was born in Hampden, Maine in 1802. Dorothea grew up in a dysfunctional home with alcoholic parents, and moved to Boston to stay with her grandmother at age 12.
Dorothea was an excellent student. By age 14, she became a schoolteacher, and even developed her own curriculum for the class. Soon after, she began writing textbooks, children’s books, and devotionals.
Unfortunately, Dorothea began experiencing episodes of illness around this time. Eventually, her poor health caused her to abandon teaching.
Illness & Recovery
Dorothea struggled with mental health issues for a significant portion of her life. It has been suggested that Dorothea suffered from chronic depression. Accounts show that she experienced at least one “breakdown” in 1831, while serving as director of a school for girls in Boston.
In an effort to improve her health, Dorothea moved to Britain in 1836. While she was there, she met Elizabeth Fry and Samuel Tuke, two social reformers that were influential and effective advocates for the improvement of mental health facilities. Dorothea was receptive to their ideas and inspired by their work.
Return to America
Upon her return to the United States in 1840, Dorothea was surprised to learn that her grandmother had died, leaving her a large inheritance. As a Calvinist, Dorothea believed that she had no choice but to use her newfound wealth to help others.
Encouraged by the ideas of Elizabeth Fry, Samuel Tuke and others, Dorothea began touring psychiatric hospitals across the United States. In many of the facilities she visited, Dorothea observed that mental health patients were treated inhumanely and did not receive the medical treatment they required.
Dorothea collected her findings and officially submitted them to the New Jersey State Legislature in 1844, appealing to officials to reform the state’s mental healthcare system. Her report was so impactful that the New Jersey Legislature introduced it to the Senate, where a resolution was swiftly passed to build a new mental health facility in New Jersey.
Dorothea traveled from New Jersey to Louisiana, submitting similar reports to each state’s legislature in support of mental healthcare reform. Her efforts even led to the development of the first public mental health facilities in Illinois, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
Eventually, Dorothea began conducting research internationally and led successful reform campaigns in Scotland and the British colony of Nova Scotia. In the late 1850s, Dorothea toured psychiatric hospitals in Rome with Pope Pius IX, who thanked her for alerting him to the shocking conditions within these facilities.
The Civil War
In 1861, in the midst of the Civil War, Dorothea was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army. During the war, Dorothea made major policy changes to protect and support female nurses, who were often mistreated at the time.
In 1863, Dorothea was given the power to appoint army nurses. Although many doctors did not want to work with female nurses, Dorothea was instrumental in hiring over 3,000 female nurses. She developed an excellent professional reputation and was formally recognized for her dedication to the cause of the Union Army.
Dorothea Dix was among the most influential individual advocates for the reform of mental healthcare facilities in the United States. In addition to her accomplishments in social reform, Dorothea Dix’s work as the Superintendent of Nurses of the Union Army was also instrumental in developing safety and equality within the American medical profession.
Dorothea founded thirty-two hospitals over the course of her life, and her research is responsible for the improvement of many hospitals across the world.
At the end of her life, Dorothea returned to New Jersey, where she died in 1887.
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GIFTED is proud to celebrate Dorothea Dix’s contributions to nursing and healthcare. She is another reason we are honored to support nurses’ heroic work.
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U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine via PubMed Central