Past Times

Dorothea Dix, the 'forgotten Samaritan'

Originally posted 11/18/2012

In November 1948, the N.C. Hygiene Society and N.C. Neuropsychiatric Association met to honor Dorothea Dix, the "forgotten Samaritan," and to mark the centennial of her appeals to the state's General Assembly to establish a hospital for the mentally ill. Cora S. Rice provided a little history on the establishment of what came to be known as Dix Hill.

North Carolina was by no means the only state to benefit from Miss Dix's humanitarian work. As a result of her untiring efforts, thousands ... were released from dungeons, caves and prisons and placed in hospitals where they were given treatment befitting the sick and unfortunate of humanity. ...

At the time of Dorothea Dix's visit to North Carolina in the fall of 1848, her efforts on behalf of the mentally ill had already resulted in the establishment of hospitals in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other states. In fact, only two of the original 13 states had failed to provide institutions for their mental patients. These were North Carolina and little Delaware.

However, the General Assembly was resistant to the idea of an additional tax to fund such a hospital.

For a few days Miss Dix's cause seemed lost but Providence moved in a mysterious way. It happened that James C. Dobbin of Fayetteville was floor leader of the 1848 House of Commons (forerunner of today's N.C. House of Representatives). During the session his wife was taken with what proved to be a fatal illness, during which she was nursed with tender care by the faithful Dorothea Dix. On her deathbed, Mrs. Dobbin asked Miss Dix if there were not some way she could show her appreciation.

"Yes," replied Dorothea, "you can do something. You can ask your husband to speak for the Hospital Bill." Louisa Dobbin died on December 18, and as a last request she asked her husband to support Miss Dix's project.

James Dobbin kept his promise. He did not observe the customary period of mourning, but on December 23 resumed his place in the House. Dobbin, who later became Secretary of the Navy, moved for reconsideration of the Hospital Bill, which had been voted on and defeated on December 21 in his absence. He supported his motion with a speech of such pathos, power and eloquence that he swept the House before him. When the vote was taken, the measure passed with an overwhelming majority - 91 to 10, and such an impression was made by Dobbin's speech that in the Senate the vote was unanimous.

Dorothea Dix then bent all her energies on getting to Washington, where a bill soliciting five million acres of public lands for the benefit of the mentally sick was about to be brought before Congress. Her North Carolina friends (stopped) her.

"Not yet," they said. "you must help us select a site for the new hospital."

With the help of hospital commissioners she found a suitable location southwest of Raleigh - a large hill commanding an expansive view. "You will let us call it Dix Hill after you?" the commissioners asked. Miss Dix hesitated. "You accept no money, no gifts from legislatures. Can we not express our gratitude in this way? If not in your honor, perhaps there is someone dear to you whose memory you would like to perpetuate."

Yes, there was someone, Dorothea Dix thought - her grandfather. It would be a fitting tribute to Dr. Elijah Dix, who had once dreamed of establishing a medical school in Boston. So, it is in his honor that the North Carolina Hospital is known as Dix Hill. The N&O, Nov. 14, 1948

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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