Sisters of Mercy

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887)

In a world where there is so much to be done, I felt strongly impressed that there must be something for me to do.

Born in Maine, Dorothea Dix moved to Boston at the age of twelve. In the 1840s and 1850s, she embarked on a major investigation of mental health and prison systems across the United States and spearheaded reform efforts leading to the establishment of 32 new state hospitals to house the mentally ill.

At 59, Dix volunteered her services to the Union Army and was named Superintendent of Nurses in charge of all women working in army hospitals. Her staff cared for Northern and Southern wounded alike, often providing the only medical care available in the field to Confederate wounded.


Dorothea Dix
Superintendent of women nurses and advocate for the mentally ill.


Featured Items from the BPL Special Collections


DOROTHEA DIX, Memorial. To the Legislature of Massachusetts. Boston: 1843.
After a survey of the horrible treatment of mentally ill prisoners and poor in Massachusetts, Dix published a scathing report, her Memorial, to the state legislature in 1843. “I tell what I have seen—painful and as shocking as the details often are—that from them you may feel more deeply the imperative obligation which lies upon you to prevent the possibility of a repetition or continuance of such outrages upon humanity.”
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
UNITED STATES MILITARY HOSPITAL, Gold Badge presented to Dorothea Dix. Tiffany & Co: undated.
This elegant gold badge was awarded to Dix for her service to the United States Military Hospital. It is unknown when it was presented, but it is doubtful that Dix wore this shiny piece from Tiffany & Co. while at her post; she established strict guidelines for nurses’ appearance. Volunteers had to be over 30 years of age and plain-looking; they were also limited to wearing black or brown hoopless dresses and forbidden to wear jewelry or any ornamentation.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
JOHN MILTON HAWKS, M.D., Surgeon’s Diary. South Carolina: 1864.
Dr. John Milton Hawks was a physician and abolitionist involved with William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society. His wife Esther Hill Hawks was one of the first female doctors in America and petitioned Dix to work in the Army hospital but was denied, perhaps because she fell two years’ short of Dix’s age requirement of 30 for nurses. In 1861, her husband joined the Union Army as a surgeon for the 3rd South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment of former slaves. Esther joined him in 1862, also working as a doctor in the unit until forbidden to do so by a commanding officer. Shown here is John Hawks’ diary from January 1864, in which he notes meeting Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson; the frigidity of the weather (“Ice formed in tents last night and when thrown out did not thaw all day”); and hospital proceedings.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
UNITED STATES SANITARY COMMISSION, Camp Inspection Return. 1862-1863.
Nearly 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War; of those losses, two-thirds of all deaths came from disease rather than the battlefield. The U.S. Sanitary Commission was charged with inspecting and improving conditions in camps and hospitals as well as providing relief supplies. This series of 1861 inspection reports for Union camps in Virginia documents the inspector’s detailed observations of medical practices as well as general reports of the soldiers’ quarters, rations, discipline, and dress.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

All that is best and bravest in the hearts of men and women, comes out in scenes like these.

Louisa May Alcott, best known as the author of Little Women, was the daughter of noted transcendentalist and educator Bronson Alcott. When the Civil War broke out, she joined a contingent of Massachusetts women volunteering at the Union Hospital in Washington, D.C. in December 1862.

While there, she met Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of Nurses in charge of the hospital, whom she thought a “kind old soul, but very queer, fussy and arbitrary; no one likes her and I don’t wonder.”


Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888).
Army nurse and author of Little Women.


Featured Items from the BPL Special Collections


LOUISA MAY ALCOTT, Hospital Sketches. Boston: 1863.
Alcott’s service as an Army nurse lasted only a few weeks before she fell ill with typhoid fever. After her recovery, she wrote Hospital Sketches, a series of semi-autobiographical letters under the name “Tribulation Periwinkle,” recounting her vivid experiences in an Army hospital. Alcott described typical day and night shifts at the hospital, the horrors of soldiers’ wounds, and the frustrations of an understaffed and undersupplied hospital. She suffered chronic health problems in her later years and she attributed her illness to mercury poisoning from her treatment for typhoid during the war.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
LOUISA MAY ALCOTT, Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Part First and Second. Boston: 1868-1869.
Hospital Sketches was extremely popular and stimulated calls for more of Alcott’s work. Her most famous novel, Little Women, also set during the Civil War era, follows the four March sisters and their mother during the absence of their father, a chaplain in the Union Army.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department