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Heroes You Should Know: Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix was an American activist who overcame an alcoholic family of origin, an abusive father, and chronically poor health to become a crusader for the mentally ill. Dix, who made her living as a teacher and a successful writer of children’s stories, was a deeply religious woman.  Eventually she began going to the jail close by her home to lead a Sunday school class.  It was there, one Sunday in 1841, that she witnessed a group of shivering, mentally ill people being herded into cells like animals.  When she expressed concern, she was told not to worry about those people since they could not feel the cold. Outraged at this inhumane treatment, she began her own statewide investigation, discovering that this was the rule, not the exception.  Mentally ill people who were poor were being where-housed in jails, not because they’d committed crimes, but because they were inconvenient.   To build her case for national reform, Dix began travelling throughout the United States, documenting the treatment of the mentally ill.  And because of her findings and her passionate lobbying of state legislatures and the United States Congress, new laws were written to protect the mentally ill and the disabled.  Additionally, special psychiatric hospitals were built in fifteen states and Canada. Except for the Civil War, where she served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union, Dix continued to champion the dignity and rights of the mentally ill until she was eighty.  For her, no human being was a throw-away. Dorothea Dix did more than hear the words of the Gospel, she lived them.  And humanity is nobler because of it. She is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

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