Dorothea Dix and the Trade in Lunacy

Dorothea Dix, Harvard University Houghton Library

Dorothea Dix was a leading US and international mental health reformer. She knew how to wield her quill pen and do her own reporting to advocate for positive changes. We still have a lot to learn from her.

Starting in 1830 with her investigative reporting on the deplorable conditions of inmates at a Cambridge, Massachusetts jail, Dorothea Dix quickly spread her mental health advocacy efforts with inspections of prisons and insane asylums throughout Massachusetts and other states, then internationally to England and Scotland (petitioning Queen Victoria for reforms), France, Italy (petitioning Pope Pius IX), and Turkey (trying unsuccessfully to meet with and petition Florence Nightingale at the end of the Crimean War).

After Dix’s controversial stint as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army during the American Civil War, she again took up her mental health reform efforts extending them to the Far West, visiting California, up through Oregon, to Washington Territory. Remarking on the natural beauty of Washington, including snow-capped Mt. Rainier, she described in a letter to her British Quaker reform friends, the Rathbones of Liverpool, that she was favorably impressed by the Pacific Northwest’s “humane and liberal” prisons and insane asylums. She attributed their excellence to how newly settled the area was, a newness that allowed for more progressive thinking than in either European or the American East Coast cities.

Dix was involved with political debates raging in England and Scotland where local parishes used the contract system, paying for their insane poor to live and work in private, for-profit insane asylums. Many of the asylum proprietors cut costs and increased their profits by shackling patients inside unheated rooms and depriving them of food and medical care. Known as the “trade in lunacy,” once the truths of the trade were uncovered, the practice was a source of widespread moral outrage and calls for reform.

In America, there were claims that treatment of insane incurable paupers in state-run insane asylums was a more humane approach. Proponents claimed it would save money in the long run, given economies of scale and since patients could avoid being sent to higher-cost jails and prisons.
Early reports from institutions such as the Worcester Insane Asylum claimed high success rates of “curing” patients of their insanity, by citing high patient discharge rates. What they failed to mention were the equally high rates of readmission of these patients to the same or similar institutions within short periods of time. Once forced to face these statistics, proponents of insane asylums, including Dorothea Dix, began to point to “seasonable care,” meaning that successful treatment and cure rates occurred when patients were identified early in their illness and were provided with appropriate treatment at insane asylums. Early in their illness was typically defined as treatment within the first year of onset of their symptoms.

Public and private debates in America were raging as to whether paupers–insane or not–brought on their own plights through immoral acts such as intemperance, specifically in terms of alcohol consumption, and the duty of the state to care for such people. Calvinist work ethics and conceptions of sin and salvation colored these debates. Women with children “out of wedlock” and prostitutes were labeled as sinners and as undeserving poor. Leading reformers such as Dorothea Dix declared that the duty of society was the same whether insanity or destitution resulted from “a life of sin or pure misfortune.”

Sources:

Dorothea Lynde Dix, Asylum, Prison, and Poorhouse: The Writings and Reform Work of Dorothea Dix in Illinois (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999).

Thomas J. Brown, Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer, Harvard Historical Studies ; v. 127 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Dix, Asylum, Prison, and Poorhouse.

Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Washington, “An Act Relating to the Support of the Poor.”

Tamonud Modak, Siddharth Sarkar, and Rajesh Sagar, “Dorothea Dix: A Proponent of Humane Treatment of Mentally Ill,” Journal of Mental Health and Human Behaviour 21, no. 1 (2016): 69, https://doi.org/10.4103/0971-8990.182088.

Dorothea Dix, “‘I Tell What I Have Seen’—The Reports of Asylum Reformer Dorothea Dix,” American Journal of Public Health 96, no. 4 (April 1, 2006): 622–24, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.96.4.622.

Dorothea Lynde Dix, The Lady and the President: The Letters of Dorothea Dix & Millard Fillmore (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975).

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