Brown, Thomas J. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. 1998. xv + 422 ppp. $35.000
Dorothea Dix of Boston (1802-1887) has been the subject of many biographies. She was the first internationally known advocate of reform in the care of the mentally ill. In particular, she was the first to believe that their care was an obligation of the modern state, requiring a new public policy. This biography inevitably invites comparison with the most recent account of her life, David Gollaher's, Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix, published in 1995 and previously reviewed in these pages. An oversimplified view is that Gollaher places more emphasis on Dix' emotionally traumatic early life and, especially, her episodes of depression as the motivating force behind her crusading advocacy for reform. Brown devotes more attention to the social and political contexts in which she worked. The contextual elements contributed to her early passion for Unitarianism. In his version: "Teetering between sinful passions and redeeming affections, the insane brilliantly demonstrated the central tenet of [her] strain of Unitarianism, the promise that religious piety could channel ardor into the achievement of self-control. The spiritual restoration of this last self-control, rather than the medical cure of insanity was Dix's goal for her subjects."
Brown excels in his analysis of Congressional maneuverings during the consideration of Dix's bill for land grants to asylums (1850-1854), her involvement with Civil War events, including her position as director of female Union nurses, and her relationship to the host of social developments in the period, including many relevant to changes in the status of women.
Students of social reform movements will benefit from reading both of these volumes as well as their predecessors.