Dorothea Dix

By Jennifer Vess, Brooke Dolan Archivist

Q: What have you found in the archives that has surprised you?

A: The majority of the collections in the Academy Archives fit together perfectly. Rarely do we look at something and wonder, “Why is this here?” But it does happen, and the collection of letters to Dr. John Torrey (Coll. 364) offers a good example.

Torrey (1796–1873) was a medical doctor and botanist who helped found the New York Lyceum of Natural History and acted as first president of the Torrey Botanical Club (now the Torrey Botanical Society). He became a member of the Academy in 1822, and decades later (exact date unknown), a man named John Redfield donated hundreds of Torrey’s letters to the Academy. The letters were written by fellow scientists and enthusiasts, but also by a most unexpected correspondent—Dorothea Dix.

Often mentioned alongside Clara Barton, Dix (1802–1887) is probably best known today for her work as superintendent of nurses during the Civil War. Those few years of war were a small part of her life, much of which she spent in pursuit of reform for prisons and asylums. For this cause she traveled throughout the United States and around the world, meeting heads of state and petitioning governments. So what brought Dorothea Dix and John Torrey together in correspondence? Plants.

Except for a single mention of her “Cause,” Dix might be mistaken for a botanist, so fully does her letter focus on flora. She writes about the plants she is sending to Torrey, and her words suggest more than a passing knowledge. The entire first page is consumed by a bean plant from Georgia and includes its scientific name (difficult to decipher) and its common name “Jack’s Bean.” The second plant mentioned, from the Delaware marshes near Philadelphia, is referred to only by a scientific name, Nelumbia.

Dix laments near the end of the letter that she is “too much an invalid at present either to perform my duties in the Cause I advocate or to gather flowers by the ‘way-side.’” A letter like this one can add new depths to our understanding of historical figures. Dix was a world-renowned reformer, but she also had an avid interest in plants, and she seems to have set aside time to cultivate that interest even as she dedicated herself to reform work. Unexpected correspondence and manuscripts—which many archives have—are rare for researchers to find, but they do make the search exciting.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Academy Frontiers.

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