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Dorothea Dix correspondence with George Barrell Emerson

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Call Number: Ch. M.3.2, pt. 1

Scope and Contents

This collection contains thrity-two letters written by Dorothea Lynde Dix to George Barrell Emerson between 1843-1846 in which she describes her visits to jails and alms and poor houses in New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana and South Carolina, the results of her meetings with officials, as well as the improvements she was able to make during these visits. Also included are poems and hymns written by Dix.


  • 1836-1847
  • Other: Date acquired: 00/00/1893


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Collection is open for research.

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Biographical or Historical Information

Dorothea Lynde Dix, 1802-1887, was a writer, teacher, and reformer who changed the way institutions treated the mentally ill. Born in Hampden, Maine, Dix started her own school for girls in Boston where she taught from 1821. By 1836, poor health and a demanding teaching schedule caused her to travel to Liverpool, England where she convalesced in the home of home of the Unitarian philanthropist William Rathbone. It was during this time that she met Samuel Tuke, founder of the York Retreat for the mentally ill. She returned to Boston in 1837 and became involved in reform and charity work. In 1841, Dix began teaching a Sunday school class in a jail for women in East Cambridge and it was the conditions she saw there that compelled her to investigate the treatment of the mentally ill throughout Massachusetts. In 1843, she submitted her first ‘Memorial’ to the state legislature in which she described her findings. By the end of 1845, Dix inspected hundreds of penitentiaries, jails, and poorhouses in the Midwest and South, as well as parts of eastern Canada.

From 1848 through 1854, Dix sought to make reforms at the federal level, but was unsuccessful. She left for England in September 1854 and traveled to Scotland the next year and 1856, Parliament approved a law that allocated funds for the improvement of asylums in Scotland. From 1855-1856, Dix traveled throughout Europe and was able to make important changes in the countries she visited.

Dix returned to New York in the fall of 1856 and continued to work for mental health reform in the United States and Canada. In 1860, the House and Senate passed her bill that allocated funds for the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton. In 1861 she was appointed superintendent of U.S. Army nurses and served in that capacity until 1865. After the war, Dix once again took up the cause of the mentally ill and continued to investigate institutions throughout the country. When she was 79, she retired to the New Jersey State Hospital and lived there until she died in 1887. In her lifetime, Dix changed the ways in which the mentally ill were viewed and established more than 120 hospitals.

George Barrell Emerson, 1789-1881, was born in Wells, Maine, and graduated from Harvard in 1817. Shortly after graduating, he became headmaster of private boy’s academy in Lancaster, Massachusetts and later became the first headmaster of the English high school for boys in Boston. In 1823 he opened a private school for girls in Boston, which he ran till 1855, when he retired from the teaching profession.


40.00 Items

Language of Materials


Arrangement Note

Arranged chronologically.

Source of Acquisition

Mellen Chamberlain

Method of Acquisition


Processing Information

Finding aid written by Rare Books and Manuscripts staff.
Dorothea Dix correspondence with George Barrell Emerson
Rare Books and Manuscriopts staff
Description rules
Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2014-01: Updated by Kimberly Reynolds, January 2014.

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