Dorothea L. Dix and the Establishment of the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum Prior to the Industrial Revolution, traditional institutions like the family, church, and local communities were charged with the care of orphaned children, the elderly, the indigent, and the mentally ill. As the Revolution flourished it greatly evolved the economy, social structure, and political institutions of the cities of New Jersey into more complex urban societies. However, as it demanded labor these institutions were no longer available to these populations. Hence, formal public establishments were born out of society’s needs. There functions were “vital to the welfare of the American people” (Hermann, F.M., p.5, Dorothea L. Dix and the Politics of Institutional Reform). One of the most important establishments developed from the results of the Industrial Revolution were insane asylums. During the 19th century, Dorothea Lynde Dix crusaded for the social justice of the growing number of impoverished mentally ill across the nation. She campaigned for the proper care and institutional treatment for these often forgotten individuals of society. The purpose of this paper is to examine Dorothea L. Dix’s role in the establishment of New Jersey’s first insane asylum. Dorothea L. Dix
Dorothea Lynde Dix is perhaps one of the most influential social reformers of the nineteenth century. She lobbied for the proper and institutional care for the mentally ill. Her efforts provided the nation with the establishment and expansion of over 30 mental hospitals (Hermann, F.M., p., Dorothea L. Dix and the Politics of Institutional Reform).
Dix was born in 1802 to John and Mary Dix, a poor couple living on the outskirts of Hempden, Massachusetts. John Dix was disowned by his wealthy family after marrying Mary Bigelow, an older and impoverished woman. He became a fanatical Methodist and forced his family into more financial distress spreading his religious ideology.
By 1814, Dix grew tired of living with her father’s oddities and abandoned her parents. She turned to her grandmother, Madam Dix, and moved to Boston. Under her grandmother’s supervision she acquired a hard work ethic and strong spiritual values. By the age of 14, she returned home and opened a school for small children. In 1819, she relocated back to Boston and established two new and very different schools serving the both the more fortunate and destitute populations. During this time, she also published several books that dealt with religious, romantic, and children’s subjects. She concluded her career as a teacher and author at the age of 34 after suffering a “nervous and physical collapse” (Hermann, F.M., p., Dorothea L. Dix and the Politics of Institutional Reform).
It was her grandmother’s death in 1837 that was the catalyst for Dix’s career as a psychiatric reformer. She accepted a position as a teacher in the women’s department of the East Cambridge House of Correction. During her employment, she found several neglected people who were confined to a “dreary, unsanitary, and unheated room” (Hermann, F.M., p., Dorothea L. Dix and the Politics of Institutional Reform). After inquiring, she discovered that these people were considered to be insane and were mistreated because of that. From this point, she resolved to improve the standard of living for the prison’s mentally ill inmates. She recruited the assistance of the media and other humanitarians to bring public attention to the abhorrent conditions these inmates endured.
Dix won her first of many battles fighting for the rights of the insane when a Massachusetts court mandated that the cold quarters housing the mentally ill of the East Cambridge House of Correction be heated. This ruling paved the way to her 2 year investigation that exposed the conditions the mentally ill...