While some reform movements were drawing crowds and getting
others were quietly making great strides. The quiet movements helped life's forgotten people. They worked for the mentally ill, the blind, the deaf, and the orphans.
Almost single-handedly, Dorothea Dix changed the attitudes of Americans about the mentally ill. A small, frail woman who seldom raised her voice, she volunteered to teach a Sunday school class in a Massachusetts jail. The conditions she saw there shocked her. People who had committed no crimes, but who were mentally ill, were locked in a cold, crowded room. No attempts to cure their illnesses were being made. Dix decided to see if mentally ill people were as badly treated in other jails and institutions. So she began a tour of inspection on her own that lasted 18 months. She visited every single prison, workhouse, poorhouse, and insane "asylum" in Massachusetts. When she was through, she wrote out her findings and presented them to the state legislature. Her report was a blockbuster. She described people locked "in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!"
Some legislators refused to believe that things could be that bad, particularly in the insane asylums. They went to see for themselves. They learned that Dix had not exaggerated. So the legislature voted funds to build hospitals for the mentally ill.
Not content, Dorothea Dix went into other states. She worked for 50 years, never drawing so much as a dollar for her work. She never accepted a single public honor. Her work was her reward. In 1840, there were just 13 institutions for the mentally ill in the United States. There, patients were chained to beds and chairs or bound in handcuffs. No effort was made to cure them. By 1880, there were more than 123 hospitals for the mentally ill. No longer were they just locked away. Efforts were being made to help them recover and return to their homes and communities.
Even though her efforts were successful at the time, treatment of the mentally ill in a fair and humane way remains a problem today.
from Dorothea Dix, The Quiet Champion by Jerry
Jeff Walker. Originally published in Cheesy Magazine in March, 1967; page