Dorothea Dix was an early activist on behalf of the mentally ill. She was born in 1802 in Massachusetts. After attempting several career paths appropriate to her gender, she was unsatisfied with all of them and suffered a nervous breakdown in her mid-30s.
In 1936, Dix went to England, where she met a Quaker family with whom she lived for a year. These Quakers believed women should have a public role in government and society, and Dix soon took to their beliefs. She was also exposed to the British "Lunacy Reform Movement," which investigated insane asylums and reported on conditions to the House of Commons.
After returning to the U.S. Dix headed up a statewide investigation on the Massachusetts insane and how they were treated in asylums. In 1843, she reported the results to the state legislature and as an outcome, a bill was introduced to expand the state mental hospital. Dix then traveled to several other states, documenting the conditions of the indigent mentally ill populations and reporting to state legislatures. In Pennsylvania, she was instrumental in the founding of the Harrisburg State Hospital, the first public mental hospital in the state. She also lobbied for a large national mental health facility, but President Pierce vetoed the bill, saying the federal government should not get involved in state social programs.
In the mid-1850s, Dix returned to Europe and conducted investigations of asylums in Scotland. After returning to the U.S., during the Civil War, she was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses. This did not work out well, however, and she was relieved of responsibility.
After the war, Dix returned to her advocacy work, traveling widely in Europe, reporting on conditions, and helping build hospitals there. Over the course of her career as an activist and spokesperson for the mentally ill, Dix helped to establish mental hospitals in 11 U.S. states, Turkey, Russia, France, and Scotland.
Dorothea Dix died in 1887 at the New Jersey State Hospital.