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Part II.


Superintendent of nurses. Miss Dorothea L. Dix.

  • Early history
  • -- Becomes interested in the condition of prison convicts -- visit to Europe -- returns in 1837, and devotes herself to improving the condition of paupers, lunatics and prisoners -- her efforts for the establishment of insane Asylums -- Second visit to Europe -- her first work in the war the nursing of Massachusetts soldiers in Baltimore -- appointment as superintendent of nurses -- her selections -- difficulties in her position -- her other duties -- Mrs. Livermore's account of her labors -- the adjutant-general's order -- Dr. Lellows' estimate of her work -- her kindness to her nurses -- her publications -- her manners and address -- labors for the insane poor since the war

Among all the women who devoted themselves with untiring energy, and gave talents of the highest order to the work of caring for our soldiers during the war, the name of Dorothea L. Dix will always take the first rank, and history will undoubtedly preserve it long after all others have sunk into oblivion. This her extraordinary and exceptional official position will secure. Others have doubtless done as excellent a work, and earned a praise equal to her own, but her relations to the government will insure her historical mention and remembrance, while none will doubt the sincerity of her patriotism, or the faithfulness of her devotion.

Dorothea L. Dix is a native of Worcester, Mass. Her father was a physician, who died while she was as yet young, leaving her almost without pecuniary resources.

Soon after this event, she proceeded to Boston, where she opened a select school for young ladies, from the income of which she was enabled to draw a comfortable support.

One day during her residence in Boston, while passing along a street, she accidentally overheard two gentlemen, who were walking before her, conversing about the state prison at Charlestown, and expressing their sorrow at the neglected condition of the convicts. They were undoubtedly of that class of philanthropists who believe that no man, however vile, is all bad, but, though sunk into the lowest depths of vice, has yet in his soul some white spot which [98] the taint has not reached, but which some kind hand may reach, and some kind heart may touch.

Be that as it may, their remarks found an answering chord in the heart of Miss Dix. She was powerfully affected and impressed, so much so, that she obtained no rest until she had herself visited the prison, and learned that in what she had heard there was no exaggeration. She found great suffering, and great need of reform.

Energetic of character, and kindly of heart, she at once lent herself to the work of elevating and instructing the degraded and suffering classes she found there, and becoming deeply interested in the welfare of these unfortunates, she continued to employ herself in labors pertaining to this field of reform, until the year 1834.

At that time her health becoming greatly impaired, she gave up her school and embarked for Europe. Shortly before this period, she had inherited from a relative sufficient property to render her independent of daily exertion for support, and to enable her to carry out any plans of charitable work which she should form. Like all persons firmly fixed in an idea which commends itself alike to the judgment and the impulses, she was very tenacious of her opinions relating to it, and impatient of opposition. It is said that from this cause she did not always meet the respect and attention which the important objects to which she was devoting her life would seem to merit. That she found friends and helpers however at home and abroad, is undoubtedly true.

She remained abroad until the year 1837, when returning to her native country she devoted herself to the investigation of the condition of paupers, lunatics and prisoners. In this work she was warmly aided and encouraged by her friend and pastor the Rev. Dr. Channing, of whose children she had been governess, as well as by many other persons whose hearts beat a chord responsive to that long since awakened in her own. [99] Dorothea L. Dix.

Since 1841 until the breaking out of the late war, Miss Dix devoted herself to the great work which she accepted as the special mission of her life. In pursuance of it, she, during that time, is said to have visited every State of the Union east of the Rocky Mountains, examining prisons, poor-houses, lunatic asylums, and endeavoring to persuade legislatures and influential individuals to take measures for the relief of the poor and wretched.

Her exertions contributed greatly to the foundation of State lunatic asylums in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana and North Carolina. She presented a memorial to Congress during the Session of 1848-9, asking an appropriation of five hundred thousand acres of the public lands to endow hospitals for the indigent insane.

This measure failed, but, not discouraged, she renewed the appeal in 1850 asking for ten millions of acres. The Committee of the House to whom the memorial was referred, made a favorable report, and a bill such as she asked for passed the House, but failed in the Senate for want of time. In April, 1854, however, her unwearied exertions were rewarded by the passage of a bill by both houses, appropriating ten millions of acres to the several States for the relief of the indigent insane. But this bill was vetoed by President Pierce, chiefly on the ground that the General Government had no constitutional power to make such appropriations.

Miss Dix was thus unexpectedly checked and deeply disappointed in the immediate accomplishment of this branch of the great work of benevolence to which she had more particularly devoted herself.

From that time she seems to have given herself, with added zeal, to her labors for the insane. This class so helpless, and so innocently suffering, seem to have always been, and more particularly during the later years of her work, peculiarly the object of her sympathies and labors. In the prosecution of these labors [100] she made another voyage to Europe in 1858 or 1859, and continued to pursue them with indefatigable zeal and devotion.

The labors of Miss Dix for the insane were continued without intermission until the occurrence of those startling events which at once turned into other and new channels nearly all the industries and philanthropies of our nation. With many a premonition, and many a muttering of the coming storm, unheeded, our people, inured to peace, continued unappalled in their quiet pursuits. But while the actual commencement of active hostilities called thousands of men to arms, from the monotony of mechanical, agricultural and commercial pursuits and the professions, it changed as well the thoughts and avocations of those who were not to enter the ranks of the military.

And not to men alone did these changes come. Not they alone were filled with a new fire of patriotism, and a quickened devotion to the interests of our nation. Scarcely had the ear ceased thrilling with the tidings that our country was indeed the theatre of civil war, when women as well as men began to inquire if there were not for them some part to be played in this great drama.

Almost, if not quite the first among these was Miss Dix. Self-reliant, accustomed to rapid and independent action, conscious of her ability for usefulness, with her to resolve was to act. Scarcely had the first regiments gone forward to the defense of our menaced capital, when she followed, full of a patriotic desire to offer to her country whatever service a woman could perform in this hour of its need, and determined that it should be given.

She passed through Baltimore shortly after that fair city had covered itself with the indelible disgrace of the 16th of April, 1861, and on her arrival at Washington, the first labor she offered on her country's altar, was the nursing of some wounded soldiers, victims of the Baltimore mob. Thus was she earliest in the field.

Washington became a great camp. Every one was willing, nay anxious, to be useful and employed. Military hospitals were [101] hastily organized. There were many sick, but few skilful nurses. The opening of the rebellion had not found the government, nor the loyal people prepared for it. All was confusion, want of discipline, and disorder. Organizing minds, persons of executive ability, leaders, were wanted.

The services of women could be made available in the hospitals. They were needed as nurses, but it was equally necessary that some one should decide upon their qualifications for the task, and direct their efforts.

Miss Dix was present in Washington. Her ability, long experience in public institutions and high character were well known. Scores of persons of influence, from all parts of the country, could vouch for her, and she had already offered her services to the authorities for any work in which they could be made available.

Her selection for the important post of Superintendent of Female Nurses, by Secretary Cameron, then at the head of the War Department, on the 10th of June, 1861, commanded universal approbation.

This at once opened for her a wide and most important field of duty and labor. Except hospital matrons,1 all women regularly employed in the hospitals, and entitled to pay from the Government, were appointed by her. An examination of the qualifications of each applicant was made. A woman must be mature in years, plain almost to homeliness in dress, and by no means liberally endowed with personal attractions, if she hoped to meet the approval of Miss Dix. Good health and an unexceptionable moral character were always insisted on. As the war progressed, the applications were numerous, and the need of this kind of service great, but the rigid scrutiny first adopted by Miss Dix continued, and many were rejected who did not in all respects possess the qualifications which she had fixed as her standard. Some of these women, who in other branches of the service, and under [102] other auspices, became eminently useful, were rejected on account of their youth; while some, alas! were received, who afterwards proved themselves quite unfit for the position, and a disgrace to their sex.

But in these matters no blame can attach to Miss Dix. In the first instance she acted no doubt from the dictates of a sound and mature judgment; and in the last was often deceived by false testimonials, by a specious appearance, or by applicants who, innocent at the time, were not proof against the temptations and allurements of a position which all must admit to be peculiarly exposed and unsafe.

Besides the appointment of nurses the position of Miss Dix imposed upon her numerous and onerous duties. She visited hospitals, far and near, inquiring into the wants of their occupants, in all cases where possible, supplementing the Government stores by those with which she was always supplied by private benevolence, or from public sources; she adjusted disputes, and settled difficulties in which her nurses were concerned; and in every way showed her true and untiring devotion to her country, and its suffering defenders. She undertook long journeys by land and by water, and seemed ubiquitous, for she was seldom missed from her office in Washington, yet was often seen elsewhere, and always bent upon the same fixed and earnest purpose. We cannot, perhaps, better describe the personal appearance of Miss Dix, and give an idea of her varied duties and many sacrifices, than by transcribing the following extract from the printed correspondence of a lady, herself an active and most efficient laborer in the same general field of effort, and holding an important position in the Northwestern Sanitary Commission.

It was Sunday morning when we arrived in Washington, and as the Sanitary Commission held no meeting that day, we decided after breakfast to pay a visit to Miss Dix.

We fortunately found the good lady at home, but just ready to start for the hospitals. She is slight and delicate looking, and [103] seems physically inadequate to the work she is engaged in. In her youth she must have possessed considerable beauty, and she is still very comely, with a soft and musical voice, graceful figure, and very winning manners. Secretary Cameron vested her with sole power to appoint female nurses in the hospitals. Secretary Stanton, on succeeding him ratified the appointment, and she has installed several hundreds of nurses in this noble work-all of them Protestants, and middle-aged. Miss Dix's whole soul is in this work. She rents two large houses, which are depots for sanitary supplies sent to her care, and houses of rest and refreshment for nurses and convalescent soldiers, employs two secretaries, owns ambulances and keeps them busily employed, prints and distributes circulars, goes hither and thither from one remote point to another in her visitations of hospitals,--and pays all the expenses incurred from her private purse. Her fortune, time and strength are laid on the altar of the country in this hour of trial.

Unfortunately, many of the surgeons in the hospitals do not work harmoniously with Miss Dix. They are jealous of her power, impatient of her authority, find fault with her nurses, and accuse her of being arbitrary, opinionated, severe and capricious. Many to rid themselves of her entirely, have obtained permission of Surgeon-General Hammond to employ Sisters of Charity in their hospitals, a proceeding not to Miss Dix's liking. Knowing by observation that many of the surgeons are wholly unfit for their office, that too often they fail to bring skill, morality, or humanity to their work, we could easily understand how this single-hearted, devoted, tireless friend of the sick and wounded soldier would come in collision with these laggards, and we liked her none the less for it.

Though Miss Dix received no salary, devoting to the work her time and labors without remuneration, a large amount of supplies were placed in her hands, both by the Government and from private sources, which she was always ready to dispense with judgment and caution, it is true, but with a pleasant earnestness [104] alike grateful to the recipient of the kindness, or to the agent who acted in her stead in this work of mercy.

It was perhaps unfortunate for Miss Dix that at the time when she received her appointment it was so unprecedented, and the entire service was still in such a chaotic state, that it was simply impossible to define her duties or her authority. As, therefore, no plan of action or rules were adopted, she was forced to abide exclusively by her own ideas of need and authority. In a letter to the writer, from an official source, her position and the changes that became necessary are thus explained:

The appointment of nurses was regulated by her ideas of their prospective usefulness, good moral character being an absolute prerequisite. This absence of system, and independence of action, worked so very unsatisfactorily, that in October, 1863, a General Order was issued placing the assignment, or employment of female nurses, exclusively under control of Medical Officers, and limiting the superintendency to a “certificate of approval,” without which no woman nurse could be employed, except by order of the Surgeon-General. This materially reduced the number of appointments, secured the muster and pay of those in service, and established discipline and order.

The following is the General Order above alluded to.

General orders, no. 351.

War Department, Adjutant-General's Office, Washington, October 29, 1863.
The employment of women nurses in the United States General Hospitals will in future be strictly governed by the following rules:

1. Persons approved by Miss Dix, or her authorized agents, will receive from her, or them, “certificates of approval,” which must be countersigned by Medical Directors upon their assignment to duty as nurses within their Departments.

2. Assignments of “women nurses” to duty in General Hospitals will only be made upon application by the Surgeons in charge, through Medical Directors, to Miss Dix or her agents, for the number they require, not exceeding one to every thirty beds. [105]

3. No females, except Hospital Matrons, will be employed in General Hospitals, or, after December 31, 1863, born upon the Muster and Pay Rolls, without such certificates of approval and regular assignment, unless specially appointed by the Surgeon-General.

4. Women nurses, while on duty in General Hospitals, are under the exclusive control of the senior medical officer, who will direct their several duties, and may be discharged by him when considered supernumerary, or for incompetency, insubordination, or violation of his orders. Such discharge, with the reasons therefore, being endorsed upon the certificate, will be at once returned to Miss Dix.

By order of the Secretary of War: E. D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General. official

By this Order the authority of Miss Dix was better defined, but she continued to labor under the same difficulty which had from the first clogged her efforts. Authority had been bestowed upon her, but not the power to enforce obedience. There was no penalty for disobedience, and persons disaffected, forgetful, or idle, might refuse or neglect to obey with impunity. It will at once be seen that this fact must have resulted disastrously upon her efforts. She doubtless had enemies (as who has not)? and some were jealous of the power and prominence of her position, while many might even feel unwilling, under any circumstances, to acknowledge, and yield to the authority of a woman. Added to this she had, in some cases, and probably without any fault on her part, failed to secure the confidence and respect of the surgeons in charge of hospitals. In these facts lay the sources of trials, discouragements, and difficulties, all to be met, struggled with, and, if possible, triumphed over by a woman, standing quite alone in a most responsible, laborious, and exceptional position. It indeed seems most wonderful-almost miraculous — that under such circumstances, such a vast amount of good was accomplished. Had she not accomplished half so much, she still would richly have deserved that highest of plaudits-Well done good and faithful servant! [106]

Miss Dix has one remarkable peculiarity-undoubtedly remarkable in one of her sex which is said, and with truth-to possess great approbativeness. She does not apparently desire fame, she does not enjoy being talked about, even in praise. The approval of her own conscience, the consciousness of performing an unique and useful work, seems quite to suffice her. Few women are so self-reliant, self-sustained, self-centered. And in saying this we but echo the sentiments, if not the words, of an eminent divine who, like herself, was during the whole war devoted to a work similar in its purpose, and alike responsible and arduous.

She (Miss Dix) is a lady who likes to do things and not have them talked about. She is freer from the love of public reputation than any woman I know. Then her plans are so strictly her own, and always so wholly controlled by her own individual genius and power, that they cannot well be participated in by others, and not much understood.

Miss Dix, I suspect, was as early in, as long employed, and as self-sacrificing as any woman who offered her services to the country. She gave herself-body, soul and substance — to the good work. I wish we had any record of her work, but we have not.

I should not dare to speak for her — about her work-except to say that it was extended, patient and persistent beyond anything I know of, dependent on a single-handed effort.

All the testimony goes to show that Miss Dix is a woman endowed with warm feelings and great kindness of heart. It is only those who do not know her, or who have only met her in the conflict of opposing wills, who pronounce her, as some have done, a cold and heartless egotist. Opinionated she may be, because convinced of the general soundness of her ideas, and infallibility of her judgment. If the success of great designs, undertaken and carried through single-handed, furnish warrant for such conviction, she has an undoubted right to hold it. [107]

Her nature is large and generous, yet with no room for narrow grudges, or mean reservations. As a proof of this, her stores were as readily dispensed for the use of a hospital in which the surgeon refused and rejected her nurses, as for those who employed them.

She had the kindest care and oversight over the women she had commissioned. She wished them to embrace every opportunity for the rest and refreshment rendered necessary by their arduous labors. A home for them was established by her in Washington, which at all times opened its doors for their reception, and where she wished them to enjoy that perfect quiet and freedom from care, during their occasional sojourns, which were the best remedies for their weariness and exhaustion of body and soul.

In her more youthful days Miss Dix devoted herself considerably to literary pursuits. She has published several works anonymously — the first of which-“The Garland of Flora,” was published in Boston in 1829. This was succeeded by a number of books for children, among which were “Conversations about common things,” “Alice and Ruth,” and “Evening hours.” She has also published a variety of tracts for prisoners, and has written many memorials to legislative bodies on the subject of the foundation and conducting of Lunatic Asylums.

Miss Dix is gifted with a singularly gentle and persuasive voice, and her manners are said to exert a remarkably controlling influence over the fiercest maniacs.

She is exceedingly quiet and retiring in her deportment, delicate and refined in manner, with great sweetness of expression. She is far from realizing the popular idea of the strong-minded woman-loud, boisterous and uncouth, claiming as a right, what might, perhaps, be more readily obtained as a courteous concession. On the contrary, her successes with legislatures and individuals, are obtained by the mildest efforts, which yet lack nothing of persistence; and few persons beholding this delicate and retiring [108] woman would imagine they saw in her the champion of the oppressed and suffering classes.

Miss Dix regards her army work but as an episode in her career. She did what she could, and with her devotion of self and high patriotism she would have done no less. She pursued her labors to the end, and her position was not resigned until many months after the close of the war. In fact, she tarried in Washington to finish many an uncompleted task, for some time after her office had been abolished.

When all was done she returned at once to that which she considers her life's work, the amelioration of the condition of the insane.

A large portion of the winter of 1865-6 was devoted to an attempt to induce the Legislature of New York to make better provision for the insane of that State, and to procure, or erect for them, several asylums of small size where a limited number under the care of experienced physicians, might enjoy greater facilities for a cure, and a better prospect of a return to the pursuits and pleasures of life.

Miss Dix now resides at Trenton, New Jersey, where she has since the war fixed her abode, travelling thence to the various scenes of her labors. Wherever she may be, and however engaged, we may be assured that her object is the good of some portion of the race, and is worthy of the prayers and blessings of all who love humanity and seek the promotion of its best interests. And to the close of her long and useful life, the thanks, the heartfelt gratitude of every citizen of our common country so deeply indebted to her, and to the many devoted and self-sacrificing women whose efforts she directed, must as assuredly follow her. She belongs now to History, and America may proudly claim her daughter.

1 In many instances she appointed these also.

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