In 1841, teacher, humanitarian, and reformer Dorothea Dix launched a vigorous campaign to secure humane treatment for those living with mental illness. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Dix was appointed superintendent of women nurses, a job she performed without salary for five years. She set strict standards for her nurses, only accepting women over age thirty and decreeing that all nurses should dress plainly. Her autocratic style brought her into conflict with doctors, nurses, and the army bureaucracy, but she was considered an “angel of mercy” by wounded soldiers.
At the end of the war, she returned to mental health advocacy. One of her legacies was St. Elizabeths Hospital, which she helped to found in 1855 as the first federal facility to treat the mentally ill of the army, navy, and the District of Columbia. St. Elizabeths commissioned this portrait of Dix in 1868.