Born in 1802 in Maine, Dorothea Dix was always interested in helping people. She had to be; her mother was mentally ill and her father an alcoholic; she was the caretaker of her siblings. She founded a school for young children when she was only fifteen. In 1841, she was a schoolteacher in Boston when she volunteered to teach a weekend class at a jail. She found conditions there to be miserable, convicts and the mentally ill shivering together in unheated rooms. She began to campaign across the state and then the entire U.S. for better treatment for the insane and others in public custody. Despite the fact that it was nearly taboo for women to speak in public, she went before many legislatures to argue on behalf of the mistreated patients and inmates. Her work helped start 32 mental hospitals and 15 homes for the retarded, among other facilities. She even spent two years in Europe and made similar changes there.

When the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861, she volunteered her services to the Union government and was placed in charge of all female nurses working with army hospitals (though she had no medical training). Given the stereotypes about women at that time, which Dix seemed to accept herself, she would not let unmarried women under 30 volunteer as nurses, and maintained a strict dress code for nurses which forbade hoops or jewelry; this was to keep her nurses from husband-hunting among the wounded. (As the need for nurses grew throughout the war, these rules were relaxed somewhat.) She was nicknamed "Dragon Dix" for her strictness, and her methods were controversial, but she tried to protect both her nurses and their patients under difficult conditions, and often got medical supplies privately when the government could not provide any.

Her health was never all that good; she spent the last six years of her life in the State Hospital she'd helped found in Trenton, New Jersey. She tried to avoid publicity for herself, publishing her ideas without her name on them and not letting hospitals be named after her (though after she died, several institutions were given her name). She died in 1887.

Sources: www.civilwarhome.com/dixbio.htm, www.greatwomen.org/dix.htm, http://www.greatamericanwomen.com/dix.htm, http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/dorotheadix.html

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