Museum Poetry: Dorothea Dix


I’m currently reading the Mark Bostridge biography of Florence Nightingale.  It’s dense and rich in detail, the research and writing is excellent.  I was reading it on the bus this morning and my head was in Victorian London, 1859,  Florence Nightingale’s new book, ‘Notes on Nursing’, was causing a storm.   Amongst all the excitement, a copy had reached Dorothea Dix, who, the ‘Americans had been comparing to Florence Nightingale since the Crimean War’.  Dorothea Dix had created a stir lobbying for changes in the treatment of mental health patients.  During the American Civil War (1861-1865) she was to be appointed Superintendent of the women nurses. dorothea-dix-1-sized

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born on 4th April 1802 in Maine, United States, born into a difficult childhood, alcoholic father, depressive mother.   Although her father taught her to read and write, from the age of 12 she went to live with a wealthy grandmother who further encouraged her education.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that she suffered from ill health and breakdowns throughout her life, as some of the most inspiring individuals suffered with ill health.  As it was, she travelled to England and stayed with the philanthropist William Rathbone.  It was here that she met Elizabeth Fry and Samuel Tuke.  Both of whom were concerned with the treatment of the mentally ill.  After her return to America, she took up a teaching post, teaching Sunday school to female prisoners in a jail.  There’s a lovely, ‘My Hero’ webpage on Dorothea Dix by Sean from Connecticut, who writes, ‘the day when she went to teaching Sunday school in Cambridge, she could have done nothing about the terrible conditions that the prisoners had to endure. She could have chosen to ignore them.’


The Mass Moments website dedicated to the history of Massachusetts writes that Dorothea Dix, ‘used her considerable lobbying skills to persuade a group of influential men to take up her “sacred cause.”  As a woman, Dorothea Dix was limited in the world of American politics, she was only able to advocate by means of written ‘testimonials’, ‘women…did not present such testimonials themselves before the legislature—a male representative had to read the text aloud’ (Manon S Parry,


Florence Nightingale also used her immense advocacy skills to persuade influential men.  The ‘Reform and Inspire’ section of the museum tells the story of Florence Nightingale’s life after she returned from the war up until her death in 1910, at the age of 90.  For most of that period she suffered from ill health and was bedbound.

This week my poem is based on an idea I pinched from blacksunshine blog, posted by Michelle:), the original is below;

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dorothea Dix Poem

D is for dilly.
O is for optimist.
R is for racy.
O is for obedience.
T is for thoughtful.
H is for helpful.
E is for efficient.
A is for achieved.

D is for delightful.
I is for infamous.
X is for xanthippe.


My version;

Dorothea Dix Poem

Florence Nightingale Poem

D was a developer

O orderly and organised

R she revolutionised

O against the odds

T taught and travelled

H a heroine for the mentally ill

E she encouraged

D with determination

I and initiative

X as in Xena the warrior princess



F was a forerunner

L with her lifework

O obstinate

R and resolute

E she endured

N never gave an excuse

C tirelessly combatted

E  and truly enlightened




I would like to end with a dedication to all those who suffer from the ‘two steps forward, three steps back dance’, (which is how I think about anxiety and OCD), take inspiration from these pioneers and don’t give up!  Plus, a quote from Dorothea Dix; ‘It is a queer thing, but imaginary troubles are harder to bear than actual ones’.

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