Although her father taught Ms Dix to read and write, she was also responsible from a very young age for the care and maintenance of the family home. Ms Dix would also have to sew and paste together religious tracts in her spare time for her father’s work. Mr Dix suffered with alcoholism and bouts of depression which caused him to have a volatile temper, and the home environment was abusive and unhappy.
When she was 12 Ms Dix moved to live with her grandmother who was married to a wealthy doctor in Boston, Massachusetts. Her grandmother supported Ms Dix’s educational aspirations and encouraged her at school. However, she insisted Ms Dix be educated in the manner of rich girls, and when she caught Ms Dix helping poorer children she was punished. Ms Dix then moved in with an aunt in Worcester, Massachusetts, and continued to be supported in her ambition to become an educator.
When she was almost 15 and still living with her Aunt, Ms Dix took a position teaching the children of wealthy families. She was encouraged in this by her cousin Edward Bangs, who helped her locate a suitable venue and pupils, as girls were not permitted to attend public schools but could be taught privately. Edward Bangs proposed marriage to her after several years, but Ms Dix refused having been left scarred by her early family experiences.
After turning down the proposal, just before she turned 18 Ms Dix returned to her grandmother in Boston to found a charity school she held at the family home called Dix Mansion. She was surprised and gratified that her grandmother supported this school, and her intention was to ensure girls born into poor families would receive an education. She accepted Mr Bangs proposal thereafter, but when her father died in 1821 she realised she could not marry and returned the engagement ring. Mr Bangs would continue to support her work throughout his life and they remained friends.
Ms Dix began to suffer poor health in 1824 which would plague her throughout her life, and when aged 22 she was forced to close her school. Instead she began to focus her intention on writing textbooks and children’s stories. Her most famous text , Conversations on Common Things. was published in this year. She spent two years as a tutor to a family friend’s children from 1830, in an attempt to recover from a serious bout of ill health, but continued her school throughout this time.
By 1836 Ms Dix became carer for her ill grandmother was ill. She herself became ill with tuberculosis. The pressures she was under eventually lead to a mental breakdown. She gave up her school and travelled to England to recuperate with her grandmother, but in 1841 her grandmother and mother died within two days of each other and she returned to Boston in better health.
In 1841 Ms Dix took a job teaching Sunday School to female prisoners at East Cambridge prison. The appalling conditions she found there inspired her to go to court to ensure prisoners had heating and that their conditions were improved in general. Ms Dix found this to be her calling, and she undertook a tour of Massachusetts institutions, presenting her findings to the legislature which undertook improvements according to her recommendations to the state mental institution in Worcester.
Ms Dix then expanded her campaigning throughout the United States, documenting the conditions and treatment of patients. She campaigned to establish humane asylums for the mentally ill and founding or making improvements to hospitals and prisons in Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina. Ms Dix had travelled from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico by 1847, visiting 18 state penitentiaries, 300 prisons, and over 500 almshouses (houses for the poor). As a result of her work twenty states established asylums for the mentally ill and founded of many additional jails and almshouses according to her recommended reforms.
Ms Dix went further than this, lobbying congress successfully for provision of land for mentally ill, deaf and blind people in 1848. Unfortunately in 1854 the bill was vetoed by the President, Franklin Pierce.
Ms Dix then travelled to Europe on a comparative fact-finding tour of provisions for the mentally ill, and was shocked by the disparity of services available for private and public mental health patients. Through her reformation recommendations, many countries founded new institutions. Ms Dix then travelled worldwide and her influence led to reforms in England, Scotland, the Channel Islands, France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Germany and directly led to the establishment of two asylums for the mentally ill in Japan.
On her return to the United States in 1856 she continued her work, but the outbreak of the Civil War curtailed her reforms. Ms Dix volunteered and was appointed Superintendent of Nurses in 1861, the first female to be appointed to a federal role bringing about many health improvements. However, her strict personality and methodology made her an enemy of the Army Officers and feared by her fellow nurses, and she was forced to leave the position in 1963 and return home. She continued her support of civil war soldiers and nurses in a non-official capacity.
After the Civil War Ms Dix continued her reform work but a bout of malaria in 1870 meant she could no longer travel. She moved to a hospital in Trenton, New Jersey, founded on her recommendations 40 years earlier, and continued her efforts from there. However, her opposition to abolition and suffrage made her a controversial figure to civil rights activists.
Ms Dix died on 17th July 1887 and was interred at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.