Today in Boston by Ethan Underhill: 3/28/1841 — The Advocate 🧠

She had just agreed to lead the women’s Sunday school class at the East Cambridge Jail.

Having come of age in a difficult household and embraced the Unitarian call to serve the world, she was eager to improve others’ lives — if only for a couple of hours each week.

Little did 39-year-old Dorothea Dix know, though, that this first prison visit today in 1841 would inspire the rest of her life as a formidable mental health advocate.

Dix was horrified that Sunday afternoon to discover dozens of prisoners who had committed no crimes, but who had very simply lost the cognitive ability to care for themselves. Written off as untreatable, the mentally ill had been thrown in jail with murderers and thieves. This was to say nothing of the grotesque condition of the facilities.

Dorothea was having none of this.

So, the former school teacher — who had just spent time in England studying the best practices of mental health treatment — started surveying every penitentiary and hospital in the Bay State. She also started a report detailing just how gut-wrenching life was for the mentally ill in prisons.

Dix then went public with her report, refusing to rest until state and local governments released mentally ill inmates from prison and placed them in a hospital specifically for them.

Of course, plenty of powerful men dismissed the research as a bunch of malarkey, but through hard work, she built a coalition of legislators who wanted to do something.

Ultimately, the Massachusetts government expanded the state asylum in Worcester. The care at that asylum still had a long way to go by our modern standards, but this unprecedented move only happened because of Dorothea Dix.

She kept going, developing similar reports for the other states in the Union as the years went by.

For perspective, when she got started in 1843, there were just 13 mental hospitals in America. By the time Dix died in 1887 at the age of 85, there were 123, 32 of which she personally had lobbied for.

And all because she had signed on to teach a Sunday school class.

Be the first to comment