Meet the Pioneers of Nursing During The Year of the Nurse

Meet the Pioneers of Nursing During The Year of the Nurse

Learn How Dorothea Dixon Transformed the Mental Healthcare System in America

In honor of the 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale, the World Health Organization designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse, and we’re celebrating the evolution of the field of nursing at American Sentinel University. This year look for monthly blog posts on some of the nursing pioneers and other contributors to the advancement of healthcare around the world.

There is a lot of talk today about the need for vast improvements to the mental healthcare system in America. If there was one individual in the history of nursing who can be considered a pioneer of this very effort, it is Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887).

Dorothea’s Early Life

After a volatile childhood, Dix moved to Boston at age 12 to live with her grandmother, who encouraged her to pursue her passion for education. The ambitious young Dix established several schools in Boston and Worcester as a teen and young woman. But her poor health took her away from this effort and she instead began writing. She published several textbooks, including Conversations on Common Things, Or Guide to Knowledge, published in 1824. She closed her latest school in 1836.

Teaching Inmates in a Prison in East Cambridge

In 1841, Dix began to teach Sunday school at the East Cambridge Jail, a prison for women. There, she was appalled to see how prisoners were treated—especially those with mental illnesses. Dix began lobbying to the local government to provide heat in the cells housing the mentally ill prisoners and make several other improvements. She researched the conditions of other prisons around Massachusetts and eventually presented her proposals to the state legislature.

Taking Her Mental Health Reform Efforts Nationwide

Dix didn’t stop in Massachusetts. She toured the United States and campaigned to establish humane asylums for the mentally ill and helped found or add to hospitals in many states, including Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, among others. She also asked Congress to grant 12 million acres of land as a public endowment for the mentally ill and the blind and deaf. When President Franklin Pierce vetoed the bill, she went to Europe to recommend reforms in many other countries.

Superintendent of Nurses During the Civil War

Dorothea Lynde Dix

When the Civil War began in 1861, Dix volunteered her services to help outfit the Union Army hospitals to oversee the large nursing staff that were needed in the war. She helped set up field hospitals and first aid stations and she recruited nurses. She was named superintendent of women nurses—and was the first woman to serve in a high capacity in this federally appointed role.

Dix was an abrasive personality and clashed with many Army officials and was eventually forced out of her position as superintendent of women nurses. After the war, Dix continued working on behalf of the mentally ill, travelling the country and the world to encourage the redesign and reform of hospitals to ensure they met the principles she upheld. She fell ill with malaria in 1870 and eventually took up residence in a hospital that had been established in her honor in New Jersey. She died there in 1887.

A Compassionate Advocate for Mental Health Patients Everywhere

Dorothea Dix was not even a nurse, yet she had a tremendous impact on the field of nursing—and the entire healthcare industry. Like many who are drawn to patient care, she was someone who cared for others and wanted to fight for those who were unable to fight for themselves. She was inspired to help people from backgrounds that were vastly different than her own. 

American Sentinel Offers Many High-Quality Nursing Programs

Perhaps you can relate to Dix’s desire to improve the quality of life for others; maybe it’s the reason you’re drawn to nursing, a “helping” career. If you’re ready to continue your educational journey, consider American Sentinel University. Our nursing programs are ideal for those who want to solve critical healthcare issues and better themselves for future career opportunities. Explore the market-relevant nursing degree programs we offer today at or call us at 866.922.5690 to learn more.


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