Social reformer and humanitarian whose devotion to the welfare of the mentally ill led to widespread reforms in the U.S. and abroad.
In 1821 she opened a school for girls in Boston where until 1835 periods of intensive teaching were interrupted by periods of ill health.
In 1841 she accepted an invitation to teach a Sunday school class in the East Cambridge (Massachusetts) jail. There the sight of mentally ill persons thrown into prison with criminals of both sexes disturbed her deeply.
In the next 18 months she toured Massachusetts institutions where the mentally ill were confined. She revealed the shocking conditions she found in a report to the state legislature (1843). When improvements followed she turned her attention to neighbouring states and then to those of the West and South.
She saw special hospitals for mental patients built in more than 15 states and in Canada and improved treatment practiced throughout the nation. Although her efforts to secure public lands for her cause failed, she aroused an interest in the problems of mental illness in Europe as well as the U.S.