She was born in Hampden, Maine, and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and then in her wealthy grandmother's home in Boston. She struggled to find a career in traditional female occupations: schoolteacher, governess, writer. None of these pursuits satisfied her ambition, and in her mid-thirties she suffered a debilitating breakdown. In hopes of a cure, in 1836 she traveled to England, where she had the good fortune to meet the Rathbone family, who invited her to spend a year as their guest at Greenbank, their ancestral mansion in Liverpool. The Rathbones were Quakers and prominent social reformers, and at Greenbank, Dix met men and women who believed that government should play a direct, active role in social welfare. She was also exposed to the British lunacy reform movement, whose methods involved detailed investigations of madhouses and asylums, the results of which were published in reports to the House of Commons.
After she returned to America, in 1840-41, Dix conducted a statewide investigation of how her home state of Massachusetts cared for the insane poor. She published the results in a fiery pamphlet, a Memorial, to the state legislature. "I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." The outcome of her lobbying was a bill to expand the state's mental hospital.
Henceforth, Dix traveled from New Hampshire to Louisiana, documenting the condition of pauper lunatics, publishing memorials to state legislatures, and devoting enormous personal energy to working with committees to draft the appropriations bills needed to build asylums. In 1848, Dorothea Dix visited North Carolina and called for reform in the care of mentally ill patients. In 1849, when the North Carolina State Medical Society was formed, the construction of an institution in the capital, Raleigh, for the care of mentally ill patients was authorized. The hospital, named in honor of Dorothea Dix, opened in 1856. She was instrumental in the founding of the first public mental hospital in Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg State Hospital, and later in establishing its library and reading room in 1853.
The culmination of her work was legislation to set aside 10,000,000 acres of Federal land, with proceeds from its sale distributed to the states to build and maintain asylums. Dix's land bill passed both houses of congress, but in 1854 President Franklin Pierce vetoed it, arguing that the federal government should not involve itself in social welfare. Stung by the defeat of her land bill, in 1854 and 1855 Dix traveled to England and Europe, where she reconnected with the Rathbones and conducted investigations of Scotland's madhouses that precipitated the Scottish Lunacy Commission.
During the Civil War, Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton were the leaders of a national effort to organize a nursing corps to care for the war's wounded and sick. Dix was already recognized for her work in improving the treatment received by the insane when she began to recruit women to serve as nurses in the Army Medical Bureau. Military traditionalists opposed her, but she prevailed, armed with an indomitable will and a singleness of purpose. One of the standards that Dix established for her nurses was that they be "plain looking" and middle-aged. "In those days it was considered indecorous for angels of mercy to appear otherwise than gray-haired and spectacled," explained one you young lady rejected by Dix. "Such a thing as a hospital corps of comely young maiden nurses, possessing grace and good looks, was then unknown." Recruits nicknamed her "Dragon Dix," but it was a badge of honor id it indicated what it took to succeed in creating the army's first professional nursing corps.
A noted social reformer, Dix became the Union's Superintendent of Female Nurses during the Civil War. The soft spoken yet autocratic crusader had spent more than 20 years working for improved treatment of mentally ill patients and for better prison conditions. A week after the attack on Fort Sumter, Dix, at age 59, volunteered her services to the Union and received the appointment in June 1861 placing her in charge of all women nurses working in army hospitals. Serving in that position without pay through the entire war, Dix quickly molded her vaguely defined duties.
She convinced skeptical military officials, unaccustomed to female nurses, that women could perform the work acceptably, and then recruited women. Battling the prevailing stereo types-and accepting many of the common prejudices herself-Dix sought to ensure that her ranks not be inundated with flighty and marriage-minded young women by only accepting applicants who were plain looking and older than 30. In addition, Dix authorized a dress code of modest black or brown skirts and forbade hoops or jewelry.
Even with these strict and arbitrary requirements, relaxed somewhat as the war persisted, a total of over 3,000 women served as Union army nurses. Called "Dragon Dix" by some, the superintendent was stern and brusque, clashing frequently with the military bureaucracy and occasionally ignoring administrative details. Yet, army nursing care was markedly improved under her leadership.
Dix looked after the welfare of both the nurses, who labored in an often brutal environment, and the soldiers to whom they ministered, obtaining medical supplies from private sources when they were not forthcoming from the government
Her nurses provided what was often the only care available in the field to Confederate wounded. "The surgeon in charge of our camp ... looked after all their wounds, which were often in a most shocking state, particularly among the rebels. Every evening and morning they were dressed." - Georgeanna Woolsey, a Dix nurse. "Many of these were Rebels. I could not pass them by neglected. Though enemies, they were nevertheless helpless, suffering human beings." - Julia Susan Wheelock, a Dix nurse. Over 5000 Confederate wounded were left behind, when Robert E. Lee retreated from Gettysburg, who were then treated by Dix's nurses, like Cornelia Hancock who wrote about what she saw. "There are no words in the English language to express the suffering I witnessed today ..."
Dorothea Dix spent her last years living as a guest in the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton.