Dorothea Dix Hospital


by Harry McKown
UNC - North Carolina Collection, 2006
"This Month in North Carolina History" series. Reprinted with permission.


Dix Hospital, Raleigh, labeled "Lunatic Asylum." Inset illustration in C. Drie, _Bird's eye view of the city of Raleigh, North Carolina 1872._ From the In the 1830s and 1840s the United States was swept by what one historian has described as a ferment of humanitarian reform. Temperance, penal reform, women's rights, and the antislavery movement, among others, sought to focus public attention on social problems and agitated for improvement. Important among these reform movements was the promotion of a new way of thinking about and treating mental illness. Traditionally, the mentally ill who could not be kept with their families became the responsibility of local government, and were often kept in common jails or poorhouses where they received no special care or medical treatment. Reformers sought to create places of refuge for the insane where they could be cared for and treated. By the late 1840s, all but two of the original thirteen states had created hospitals for the mentally ill, or had made provision to care for them in existing state hospitals. Only North Carolina and Delaware had done nothing.


Interest in the treatment of mental illness had been expressed in North Carolina in 1825 and 1838 but with no results. Several governors suggested care of the mentally ill to the General Assembly as a legislative priority, but no bill was passed. Then in the autumn of 1848 the champion of the cause of treatment of the mentally ill made North Carolina the focus of her efforts. Dorothea Lynde Dix was a New Englander born in 1802. Shocked by what she saw of the treatment of mentally ill women in Boston in 1841 she became a determined campaigner for reform and was instrumental in improving care for the mentally ill in state after state.

Dorothea L. DixIn North Carolina Dix followed her established pattern of gathering information about local conditions which she then incorporated into a "memorial" for the General Assembly. Warned that the Assembly, almost equally divided between Democrats and Whigs, would shy from any legislation which involved spending substantial amounts of money, Dix nevertheless won the support of several important Democrats led by Representative John W. Ellis who presented her memorial to the Assembly and maneuvered it through a select committee to the floor of the House of Commons. There, however, in spite of appeals to state pride and humanitarian feeling, the bill failed. Dix had been staying in the Mansion House Hotel in Raleigh during the legislative debate. There she went to the aid of a fellow guest, Mrs. James Dobbins, and nursed her through her final illness. Mrs. Dobbins's husband was a leading Democrat in the House of Commons, and her dying request of him was to support Dix's bill. James Dobbins returned to the House and made an impassioned speech calling for the reconsideration of the bill. The legislation passed the reconsideration vote and on the 29th day of January, 1849, passed its third and final reading and became law.


For the next seven years construction of the new hospital advanced slowly on a hill overlooking Raleigh, and it was not until 1856 that the facility was ready to admit its first patients. Dorothea Dix refused to allow the hospital to be named after herself, although she did permit the site on which it was built to be called Dix Hill in honor of her father. One hundred years after the first patient was admitted, the General Assembly voted to change the name of Dix Hill Asylum to Dorothea Dix Hospital.

Update from N.C. Government & Heritage Library staff: 
Beginning around 2000, efforts began to look into closing Dorothea Dix Hospital. Various parcels of land on the campus were transferred to other purposes. Discussions to close the hospital increased from 2008 to 2010.  In 2010, it was announced that the facility would ultimately close its doors and in 2012 the last patients were relocated to the state's medical facility in Butner, N.C. In 2015, the state approved sale of 300-plus acres to the city of Raleigh for a city park.  

References and additional resources


Margaret Callendar McCulloch, "Founding the North Carolina Hospital for the Insane," North Carolina Historical Review, vol.13:3 (July, 1936).


Dorothea Lynde Dix, Memorial soliciting a state hospital for the protection and cure of the insane: submitted to the General Assembly of North Carolina, November, 1848. Raleigh, N.C.: Seaton Gales, printer for the State, 1848.


Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Stranger and traveler: the story of Dorothea Dix, American reformer. Boston: Little Brown, 1975.


Richard A. Faust, The story of Dorothea Dix Hospital. Raleigh, N.C., 1977.


Image Credits


Drie, C. N. "Bird's eye view of the city of Raleigh, North Carolina 1872." Digital ID g3904r pm006660. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 USA. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3904r.pm006660.


"Dorothea Dix." Photograph no. N53-15-1493. From the North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC.

Authors: 

Comments

Comment: 

I need information about my aunt who died while in Dorothea Dix at age 31. It is important for family medical history and this has been hushed up too long. None of my living family members know how she died. What is my next step?

Comment: 

My aunt died at Dix.
I found her death certificate (which stated cause of death) by creating a free account with Family Search. family search.org
I have found many birth, death, marriage etc. records at Family Search. Quite fascinating the things I have learned!
I Hope this will help you also!

Comment: 

Olive,

Dorothea Dix records are located at the State Archives of North Carolina and patient records are not accessible by law. You may contact the State Archives for more information.

Francesca Evans, Government & Heritage Library

Comment: 

This information from Ms. Evans is not correct. Patient records from Dorothea Dix Hospital that are more than 100 years old are available to the public at the State Archives of North Carolina. These records include entries in an admissions ledger from 1856-1919, as well as general case histories from 1887-1919--all in all, information about over 7,000 patients.

Sarah Almond, UNC-Chapel Hill

Comment: 

Sarah, could you please provide a phone number or contact person who could verify this? I was told by several sources, including Central Regional Hospital in Butner, NC (where the Dix records were transferred) that all records before 2007 have been destroyed. If there are any, I would love to get in touch with them.

Comment: 

From earlier comments, I can see that I will not be able to view my great grandfathers records who died there in 1929 till 2029. My question is, since the hospital is going to be torn down, will all the records be taken and saved from the hospital?
Holly

Comment: 

The records have been removed from the hospital and are now at the State Archives.

Comment: 

was doing a search and saw endeavor.unc.edu I think it was that students were researching some of the ledgers at the school, for research but can't say what years they are allowed to look at.

Comment: 

I have a friend that was in Dorothea Dix in the 80's and 90's. I wanted to know where she went when the hospital closed. her name is Brenda Sue Shelton. She married Richard Wall and I don't know who her second husband was. She was from Carthage, N.C.
Thank you

Comment: 

Unfortunately, patient records are sealed. They are located at the State Archives of North Carolina and they are not allowed to share patient info, even with family. Sorry.

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

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