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Dorothea Dix: An early champion for the mentally ill

October 8, 2015

Filed under Community and Domestic Life, Exhibits, Fine Arts, Pennsylvania Treasures, Permanent Exhibits, Press Releases

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Portrait of Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix dedicated her life to improving conditions for those living with mental and physical incapacities. This portrait became part of the permanent art collection at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in 2008.

Samuel B. Waugh, a well-known artist and native of Mercer, Pa., created this oil and canvas portrait of Dorothea Dix. His work became part of the permanent art collection at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in 2008. Previously, the portrait hung in the Dixmont State Hospital, named after its founder Dorothea Dix. The painting will appear as part of the upcoming Pennsylvania Icons exhibit and was selected by CAP Curator Carol Buck as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure.

Founded in 1848, The Dixmont State Hospital was the first institution in western Pennsylvania that offered treatment for the mentally ill. Dix dedicated her life to improving conditions for those living with mental and physical incapacities. In 1836, she traveled to England seeking a cure for her own ailments. While there she met proponents who believed that the government should play a role in ensuring the social welfare of its citizens. This line of thinking became part of the reform movement in Great Britain that called for change in regards to education, sanitation and prisons. People involved in this reform movement scrutinized the treatment of patients in facilities known then as madhouses, almshouses and asylums as well as in prisons.

Upon her return to the United States around 1840, Dix began to look into the treatment of mentally ill and poor people institutionalized in Massachusetts. She found conditions directed at this segment of the population to be deplorable and presented her findings to the state’s legislature. In 1844, Dix traveled to New Jersey to investigate the state’s jails and almshouses and, just as in the case of Massachusetts, prepared documentation for the state’s legislature. She later launched similar investigations in New Hampshire, Louisiana, North Carolina and Illinois. In each of these states, Dix was successful in getting bills passed that expanded mental health facilities that provided humane treatment to patients.

In Pennsylvania, her work helped expand The Insane Department of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital, which would eventually become Dixmont State Hospital. She was also responsible for founding the first public mental hospital in Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg State Hospital.

In her later years, during the Civil War, the Union Army appointed Dix its Superintendent of Army Nurses. Through Dix’s humanitarian nature and leadership skills, care was provided to both Union and Confederate soldiers alike. After the war, she resumed her campaign for the proper care of those suffering with mental illness for the remainder of her life.


About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.