Dorothea Dix: a Champion for the Poor and Mentally Challenged

By Phin Upham

Dorothea Dix was born in 1802 to a religious zealot of a father. He would make her stitch together pamphlet’s he’d written, so he could distribute them to the town’s folk who lived in Hampden, Maine. When she was 12 years old, she moved herself to her grandmother’s home in Boston. That journey would take her ultimately to her aunt in Worcester, where she would settle down and begin teaching Sunday school.

When Dix was 17, she returned home to Maine and founded the “Dix Mansion” which became a school for girls of some repute. She founded another charity school in town, and allowed girls to come and study there for free. She published several textbooks, including the famous manual Conversations on Common Things.

In 1841, Dix brought her schooling to the East Cambridge Jail, and it was there that her life changed forever. She witnessed horrible abuse of the prisoners there, especially the mentally handicapped female population, and lobbied hard to bring significant change to the jail. She toured the state, observing the conditions in jails and compiling a report she served to the Massachussetts legislature, who did take her reforms seriously.

Dix lobbied the Federal government when she wasn’t satisfied with simple change at the state level. She won 12 million acres to be used by the mentally ill, blind and deaf. It was a great idea with bi-partisan approval but the bill was vetoed by then president Franklin Pierce. Still, Dix did not let a thing like a presidential veto set her back. She took her case to Pope Pius IX, who erected a new hospital for the mentally ill as soon as he’d heard her report.

Phin Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Phin Upham website or Facebook page.