Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887) was a professional writer, a teacher and an amateur naturalist. During the Civil War, she was appointed to the highest public office ever held by a woman in the United States. But the work she wanted to be remembered for was her work on behalf of the indigent mentally ill.

D.L.D., as she called herself, perfected the American oratory literary genre in her documentation of the conditions of the prisons and asylums in the United States and abroad. For more than 30 years she was monomaniacal in her efforts to establish government-funded hospitals and to improve the treatment of those suffering from mental illness.

D.L.D. never married. She earned her living by teaching and later lived off the royalties of her books. She traveled alone throughout the United States, and as far as Norway and Turkey, to confer with doctors and politicians. She even enjoyed an audience with the Pope Pius IX in Rome.

While she was a beloved antebellum celebrity, she was anything but a proto-feminist. Often misunderstood and misinterpreted by historians, D.L.D.’s public activities were not evidence of a rejection of the Victorian patriarchy, nor were they evidence of hypocrisy. D.L.D. cultivated her aura of femininity with great care, but she was a woman behind her own times, a role-model for a waning era. She was the perfect example of the Victorian “spinster” as the community’s ideal matriarch.

Extraordinarily devout and disciplined, D.L.D. was also damaged. Her childhood was marked by a volatile, abusive alcoholic father and a mother whom some described as mentally ill, and others described as drug-addicted. D.L.D. claimed she “never knew childhood”. Time and again she referred to herself as an orphan.

And she obsessed over the fragile hold she had on her own sanity.