Celebrated teacher, nurse, and prison reform advocate Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was born in 1802 to an abusive alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother. From the age of twelve, she and her two brothers were raised by their wealthy grandmother and great aunt. From an early age, Dorothea expressed keen interest in the plight of the poor, and dedicated the early part of her career to providing education for girls who otherwise would not have such opportunities.
In 1841, however, Dorothea’s life changed after she witnessed the inhumane conditions in a women's prison in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was shocked to find the mentally ill caged in cold, damp, unfurnished, foul-smelling quarters. They were often beaten and not adequately fed. She disagreed with the common perception that "the insane do not feel heat or cold." She spent the next forty-six years pushing state legislatures for prison reform and adequate care for the mentally ill. During the Civil War, she served as superintendent of Union army nurses, and afterwards used those experiences with government bureaucracy to effectively further the cause of appropriate care for the mentally ill.
Dorothea Dix died in 1887, one of the most passionate and dedicated advocates of populations most people of her day would have preferred to ignore.