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Dorothea Dix letters to George Barrell Emerson and other writings

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

Scope and Contents

The Dorothea Dix letters to George Barrell Emerson and other writings spans the years 1836-1847 and includes 32 letters written by Dorothea Lynde Dix to George Barrell Emerson between 1843-1846 in which she describes her visits to jails and poor houses in New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana and South Carolina; the results of her meetings with officials; and the improvements she was able to make during these visits. Also included are clippings and manuscripts featuring poems and hymns written by Dix.


  • 1836-1847


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Items in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. In most cases, the Boston Public Library does not hold the copyright to the items in our collections. It is the sole responsibility of the user to make their own determination about what types of usage might be permissible under U.S. and international copyright law.

Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887)

Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887) was a writer, teacher, and reformer who changed the way institutions treated those with mental illness. Born in Hampden, Maine, she was the daughter of Joseph and Mary (Bigelow) Dix. At age 12, she ran away from home and eventually she moved to Boston. In 1821, she started a school for girls where taught until to 1836. While in Boston, Dix met then became a close friend of the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, and later met others in the Transcendentalist community, among them George Barrell Emerson, the cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson. By 1836, poor health and a demanding teaching schedule led her to travel to Liverpool, England where she convalesced at the home of the Unitarian philanthropist William Rathbone. It was during this time that she met Samuel Tuke, founder of the York Retreat for people with mental illness. She returned to Boston in 1837 and became involved in reform and charity work. In 1841, Dix taught Sunday school in a jail for women in East Cambridge where she saw conditions that compelled her to investigate the treatment of people with mental illness 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 had inspected hundreds of penitentiaries, jails, and poorhouses in the Midwest and South as well as parts of eastern Canada.

From 1848 to 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 following year. In 1856, Parliament approved a law that allocated funds for the improvement of asylums in Scotland. From 1855 to 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 improving the treatment of people with mental illness 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 transformed ideas about mental illness and established more than 120 hospitals.

George Barrell Emerson (1789-1881)

George Barrell Emerson (1789-1881) was born in Wells, Maine and graduated from Harvard in 1817. Shortly after graduating, he became headmaster of a private academy for boys in Lancaster, Massachusetts and later became the first headmaster of the English high school for boys in Boston. In 1823, he opened the Emerson School for girls, private school in Boston which he ran until his retirement from the teaching profession in 1855. In addition to his career in education, Emerson was very interested in the trees and shrubs native to Massachusetts and was instrumental in establishing the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. George Barrell Emerson died in Newton, Massachusetts on March 14, 1881.


40 Items

Language of Materials



The material is arranged chronologically.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Mellen Chamberlain, 1893

Former Title

Collection formerly known as Dorothea Dix correspondence with George Barrell Emerson.

Processing Information

This electronic finding aid is transcribed from legacy data. In many cases, transcriptions were not verified against collection materials at the time of transcription. As a result, this finding aid could be incomplete and might only reflect a partial understanding of the material.

Statement on harmful description

Archival description reflects the biases of time periods and cultures in which it was created and may include direct quotations or descriptions that use inappropriate or harmful language. Creator provided descriptions may be maintained in order to preserve the context in which the collection was created and/or used. Legacy description and potentially offensive content may be made available online until a collection can be reprocessed because the access that they provide to primary source materials is uniquely valuable to the research community at large. Our efforts to repair outdated descriptions and to describe our collections more equitably are iterative and ongoing.
Guide to the Dorothea Dix Letters to George Barrell Emerson and Other Writings
Rare Books and Manuscripts Staff and Kimberly Reynolds
Finding aid created and/or transcribed from legacy inventory prior to 2020.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2014-01: Updated by Kimberly Reynolds.
  • 2022-11-03: To comply with Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) Version 2019.0.3, Crystal Rodgers, Archivist, adjusted the following field(s): title, finding aid filing title, finding aid date, scope and contents note, biographical/historical note, immediate source of acquisition note, arrangement note, processing information note, curatorial department, revision date, and revision description, and created the following field(s): EAD ID.

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