Context: In the early 1800s, prisons were often crudely constructed and held a variety of criminals and also the mentally ill (violent and nonviolent offenders, as well as men, women, and children were often lumped together). Often, the insane and other mentally ill people were locked in dirty cells and abused by guards.

Problems to address:  Dorothea Dix, after touring many prisons and asylums in the early 1840's, saw that the conditions were horrible, especially for the mentally ill. Workers at prisons and asylums focused on punishing the "insane" instead of trying to help them. Addressing the Massachusetts State Legislature, Dix said, "I refer to idiots and insane persons dwelling in circumstances not only adverse to their own physical and moral improvement but productive of extreme disadvantages to all other persons brought into association with them."

Goals: Dix wanted to exposed the horrific conditions in asylums so that the government might invest in changing asylums into places of healing rather than a nearly-sadistic prison unfit for humans.

John Caroll, who was admitted to an insane asylum by his family, described his experience: "When I walked out, [the guard] knocked me down and, with thee others, kicked me and beat me until I was senseless. When I came to my senses I was in a cell. I had on a strait-jacket, and was lying on a bare, damp floor. There was no furniture in the room."


  • Conversion: Dr. John Galt based his treatment on the idea that his patients were still human, and could be helped with minimal punishment. His methods became the basis of treatment for the mentally ill.
  • Moral Suasion: In her memorial, Dix listed to the Massachusetts State Legislature the many abuses of the mentally ill which she had seen firsthand. By showing specific examples (patients being chained, put in cages, or even left to wander the countryside themselves) and showing mental patients in a sympathetic light, her accounts helped convince state legislatures that it was society's moral duty to help them.
  • Coercion: The only people who were really coerced were the taxpayers of the states which established  or reformed publicly-funded mental asylums after the findings of Dix and Galt.

This reform movement was radical because it brought a very new viewpoint about the mentally ill. The Asylum Movement helped bring along the notion that helping the mentally ill was the duty of society and also the notion that the mentally ill should be treated like human beings with dignity and respect.

Outcomes: Successful in some ways, and unsuccessful in other ways. It was successful due to the new way patients were treated and cared for, simply because of Dorothea Dix. And unsuccessful because the cause was not given enough money from the government, to reform all asylums.


Primary Sources

Dix, Dorothea. Memorial: To The Legislature of Massachusetts. 1843. Classroom Resource.

“Out of an Insane Asylum.” The New York Times. (published March 26, 1880; accessed October 22, 2014).

“Dorothea Dix: A Social Reformer.” Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Dorothea-Dix.jpg (published 2009; accessed October 22, 2014).

“Dorothea Dix: A Social Reformer.” Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. hisD.jpg (published 2009; accessed October 22, 2014).

Secondary Sources

“Prison and Asylum Reform.” Reform Movements. (accessed October 22, 2014).

“Prison and Asylum Reform.” Independence Hall Association. (accessed October 22, 2014).

Warder, Graham. “Miss Dorothea Dix.” Disability History Museum. (accessed October 22, 2014).

“The Asylum Movement.” Youtube Video (accessed October 22, 2014).

“Natural History Day: Dorothea Dix and the Asylum Movement.” Youtube Video (accessed October 22, 2014).

Comment Stream

4 months ago

Im doing a project on Dix. Any website suggestions?