© Rev. Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn. All Rights Reserved.
Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Bridgeport
December 5, 2004

From the Principles and Purposes of the UUA we read -The living tradition which we share draws from many sources including the:

  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;

One woman whom I have grown up thinking was absolutely remarkable, and whose life and work can absolutely be held up as a model of the words and deeds of a prophetic woman who without question confronted powers and structures of evil with justice compassion and her own tirelessly transforming love is Dorothea Lynde Dix. It was however not until I was required by the ministerial fellowship committee of the UUA to read several biographies of Unitarian and Universalists that I fully understood the magnitude of this woman’s endeavors. A few years ago I discovered that very few people had even heard of Dorothea Dix. What I discovered was that the only people who seemed to know anything about her at all, including just recognizing the name, were nurses, and mental health professionals. So I thought it my turn to rectify in small measure that situation by sharing the legacy of the remarkable Dorothea Lynde Dix with you today.

Having been raised by a psychologist and psychiatric social worker, less than a mile from Dorothea Dix’s final home, which also happened to be in the same facility where my parents first met, and where my father lived at the time – I was raised assuming everyone knew of Dorothea Dix’s remarkable legacy.

Since so many others have never heard of this woman let me start with the simple question – so who was she and what the heck did she do that was so unusual that anyone would consider her a prophetess? Well Dorothea Dix treated people with mental illness who had been relegated to prisons of the worst kind as human beings. She treated them with care and kindnesses which were absolutely unheard of in her day. Dorothea Dix sought and achieved justice for a great many people who had a vast array of mental illnesses which were in her day untreatable.

Dorothea Dix was never flashy and she never sought or really received recognition for her work in her own lifetime, but she also really did not want recognition. A woman of dignity she strove to help others see their role in improving the station of those whom she advocated for. Dorothea Dix would be absolutely appalled by the conditions of the mentally ill in this country today, for we have closed so many of the mental hospitals she fought to have built as havens for those with mental illness and are once again incarcerating those with incurable mental illnesses.

I come from a family which honored and supported the image of mental health care that Dorothea Dix advocated. My great Uncle Dr. Marcus M. Curry was director of and developed at the State Hospital at Morris Plains New Jersey in the early 1900’s a facility very much in keeping with the dreams and hopes of Ms. Dix. Morris Plains and The New Jersey State Mental Hospital at Trenton were intertwined in the life of my family, which also served to make Dorothea Dix a figure whose story was intertwined with our own. It was the man who was director at Morris Plains in the 1880’s who lobbied the State Legislature to create a residence for Ms. Dix at the state hospital in Trenton. The legislature did and Dorothea Dix lived and worked there for her last years.

My mother was born at the Mental Hospital in Morris Plains because its physicians and staff were among the best in the region, not a claim that many mental health facilities would claim today. That was not all though, my mother spent a great deal of time in her childhood visiting her Uncle, Aunt and Cousin at the Hospital where they lived, the hospital where the patients, residents, were also some of the finest chefs, gardeners and other professionals to be found anywhere.

One of the changes that took place in mental health care was creating an environment where people were treated well and enabled to be their best. This is not to say that some of these people did not have episodes of acute mental illness, but rather it is to say that many of them had cyclical illnesses and when they were stable they were active in the life of their community, an enclosed community, a safe and supportive community within the expanses of land, buildings and people which constituted the mental hospital.

I was raised thinking of mental hospitals as fabulous places. The Hospital at Trenton was beautiful in my childhood. It had magnificent buildings with elegant architecture, manicured grounds which included grass tennis courts available to all connected with the hospital and maintained by the patients, there were also fabulous and extensive gardens where my parents courted and we went for walks as young children. I knew patients who tended the rose gardens and other specific areas from walks I would take with my parents around the grounds. The basement of the New Jersey State Hospital at Trenton was where my parents first met, they said it was at a staff meeting, and it was where my father as a staff psychologist lived for several years until he and my mother were married and found an apartment nearby. Mind you there is probably not a joke about this subject that they and I have not heard.

That is, I believe, why I have always been fascinated by Dorothea Dix. But that is not all there is to know about her. She was the daughter of a minister who had trouble providing a stable life for his family, known to be an excellent preacher he apparently was not great at getting the finances of a church to cover his families needs. At age ten Dorothea moved to Boston where here paternal Grandmother thought it most important to teach Dorothea to be a ‘proper’ lady of her times. Dorothea and her grandmother as the story goes clashed continuously until the sister of the Grandmother took Dorothea in and helped her in a gentler way to be a lady.

Dorothea moved in with her Great Aunt in Worcester, Massachusetts and at the ripe old age of 14 decided to open a school. Apparently this was not uncommon for young women of good families to open small schools to teach reading and writing to very young children, her first pupils were only three and four years of age. The full range of subjects she taught included: reading, writing, manners, customs, sewing, morals and religion. At 19 Dorothea returned to Boston to continue her own education which she did with the help of her Grandmother and a great many lectures provided by local institutions such as Harvard and by delving into a number of local libraries – in this year she also decided to open a new school at her Grandmothers Home – an idea not much to that Genteel lady’s liking! The grandmother acquiesced and Dorothea opened her school, which grew rapidly and became not only a day school but a boarding school as well – by this stage Dorothea had determined it was her responsibility to provide for her mother and brothers.

So successful was her school that Dorothea decided to open another school for children from poor families. She managed to convince her grandmother to provide space for this school as well. Dorothea attended a congregational church with her Grandmother until she met William Ellery Channing a Unitarian minister and became captivated by his ideas. Unfortunately Dorothea suffered a variety of ailments that caused great damage to her lungs and she was forced to close her schools.

During her recuperation Dorothea traveled to warmer climates and wrote several books. Over the following years Dix would teach fall ill again, spend months sometimes years recuperating before setting back to teaching but always she kept herself occupied, and was well thought of by the educated people she encountered and carried on a great many correspondences with well known figures of her day including the not always so well respected Unitarian President Millard Fillmore.

It was in 1841, at the age of 39 that Dix began the work that was to make her famous. By this point her health had deteriorated so much that her prospects for a long life were dim, her doctor expected her to live less than a year, and one lung had already been removed. Her mission began almost by accident when she was asked to teach the class of a young ministerial student one night in a jail, while there she asked to see where the lunatics were kept.

Dix latter came to know Horace Mann, also a well known educator, he had worked tirelessly to get the Massachusetts legislature to provide funds for and to build “lunatic asylums” where people would be well treated. Dix had discovered that throughout the world horrific treatments were considered acceptable courses of action when people were identified as lunatics. Lunatics were often chained, kept unclothed in unheated buildings and sheds. They were at times burned as witches, or forced to undergo barbaric surgeries to remove parts of their skulls, such procedures were supposed to allow the evil to flow out, even more amazingly there were those who survived such experiences.

Dorothea Dix came to understand quickly that there were vastly different treatments for those with money and those without. She set out to discover how the poor mentally ill were treated. Dix traveled by carriage throughout the state of Massachusetts following leads and visiting with the mentally ill, she recorded in detail all that she found. Often she found people chained, or caged, frequently without clothes and in filth. Many times they had sores, one man had had his feet amputated because of frostbite, and the person she spoke to said that they kept him chained because the man could still crawl and might do damage if he got loose.

Dorothea Dix interviewed the inmates and those who were considered their keepers wherever she could. For many of the mentally ill she was the first person who had spoken with them in years. Even more amazing was that after visits she would continue to send them clothes, letters, books, magazines and the like treating them in most cases more humanly than anyone else. In some situations the “keepers” had never thought of these individuals as human, or considered that any other kind of treatment might be possible.

Penny Colman writes “Undaunted by the fact that she was a retired school teacher in frail health without wealth or power to support her cause, Dorothea Dix completed her investigation and planned her next move. In consultation with her friends, Dix decided to present her findings in the form of a Memorial, a document that presents facts and requests action, to the Massachusetts Legislature. Her friend Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a member of the legislature, offered to present it personally and introduce a bill to build new hospitals.” The year was 1843 and she was 41 years old.

For the remaining 46 years of her life she did remarkable work, traveling throughout the United States and the world meeting with influential leaders of countries and religions to advocate for more humane treatment, and the establishment of hospitals for the mentally ill. This included many years in Washington lobbying for changes on a National level. v With the Civil War came a new mission for Dorothea Dix, a mission which is how, and why she is known to many nurses. She became the driving force of all nursing done during the Civil war and served as the superintendent of all nursing staff. Dorothea Dix however did not want to be known for this work , although she had done a noble job, and is remembered by many for her efforts. It remained her work for the mentally ill that she was most dedicated to and at the end of the war it was that work to which she returned and it was that work that carried her through to the end of her days. v As a Unitarian I believe Dorothea Dix would be proud to be known for her words and deeds which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. I believe it is that legacy which must inform and shape the ways each of us treats others. In a world in which Dorothea Dix could have chosen many alternatives, she chose to make a difference, she chose to see the inherent worth and dignity of every person and to make that her life’s work. We need not dedicate our entire lives to a mission as Dorothea Lynde Dix did to make a difference, within our own church community we can each and everyone of us make a difference in the lives of others. Sometimes it is a smile or a kind word, some times a ride or a meal, sometime it is sharing the abundance of clothes or household items we have with others in need that can make a difference.

It is my hope that this church will become even more of a community of care that it has always been. I as minister and those involved with fellowship, and social action are aware of needs that we can meet to enhance the welcome of our church, and the life of its members and friends. Do not hesitate to offer aid to one another, or to let others know when you have resources, time or talent to share. It is important at the holiday season but it is even more important for us to realize that at all thimes there are those with needs. May each of us leave a legacy of importance, and caring.