Throwback Thursday: Dorothea Dix

Image from the New England Historical Society
Image from the New England Historical Society

“I tell what I have seen…” Dorothea Dix wrote these very words in a Memorial to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843, decades before women’s right to vote was even recognized in the United States. Three years prior, in 1841, Dorothea volunteered to teach classes to female inmates in the East Cambridge Jail (Parry, 2006). Thus began her entry into the doors of jails, prisons, workhouses, almshouses, and asylums across the state, and subsequently, across the country. Dorothea witnessed the inhumane conditions of the mentally ill held in captivity alongside criminals. From her visits, she documented every account of physical and sexual abuse, starvation, disregard for sanitation and safety, flogging, and people confined to cages or chained in shackles. Dorothea presented her research before the Massachusetts legislature:

If I inflict pain upon you, and move you to horror, it is to acquaint you with suffering which you have the power to alleviate, and make you hasten to the relief of the victims of legalized barbarity (Dix, 1843).

Dorothea’s advocacy efforts spread across Massachusetts and abroad. The number of mental health hospitals in the country increased from 13 in 1843 to 123 by 1880, largely because of Dorothea’s commitment to prison and asylum reform (Mass Moments, 2014).


Dix, D. (2006). Memorial, to the Legislature of Massachusetts, 1843. American Journal of Public Health, 96(4), 622-624. Retrieved from: (2014). Dorothea Dix begins her crusade: March 28. 1841. Mass Moments. Retrieved from:

Parry, M. S. (2006). Dorothea Dix (1802-1887). American Journal of Public Health, 96(4), 624-625. Retrieved from: (2015). Prison and Asylum Reform. U. S. History Online Textbook. Retrieved from:


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