USA Research Trip Reflections

Eleanor Braithwaite
Tuesday 6 August 2019

For this summer’s segment of my Laidlaw scholarship, I had the fantastic opportunity to be able to travel to the United States to access relevant primary material for my project on Dorothea Dix. Last summer, I focused on British nineteenth-century public health reformer Sir Edwin Chadwick. My aim was to understand how he conceived of the law, and especially legal reform, upon which he was most influential in the realm of public health legislation. To understand his views and ideas with regards to this, I visited the UCL site in Bloomsbury, London, where the Chadwick papers are kept. From this experience I gained my first taste of archival research.

In this summer’s research segment, which follows on from last year, I am looking for my case study at Dorothea Dix, a pioneering and inspiring advocate and social reformer in nineteenth-century America. Dix lobbied on behalf of the mentally ill to state legislatures and Congress, and succeeded in setting up the first generation of American mental asylums. Following on from my examination of Edwin Chadwick’s conception of the law in the realm of public health legislation, I am looking at how Dix conceived of the law and the uses and functions of the law in order to benefit mentally ill Americans.

To be able to understand Dix’s views and ideas with regards to this, this summer I travelled to the US with the help of the Laidlaw travel fund to visit Harvard’s Houghton Library (where the Dorothea Lynde Dix papers are kept) and The New York Public Library (where a decade of Dix’s letters are kept). Primary sources are invaluable to a research project in History, and so I am grateful I was able to access these. This research trip enabled me to demonstrate leadership, travelling to the archives in Cambridge, MA and Manhattan, NY respectively and accessing primary materials relevant to my project. Some challenges that arose included: getting to grips with differing search databases at the archives themselves; adopting differing access practises; and, also, the challenge of choosing which materials I wished to examine (Houghton library had 26 boxes of sources, for instance). Moreover, in examining a variety of Dix’s correspondence, I often struggled to read her or her acquaintances handwriting. I will steadily work through this issue as I produce my final research report, working through the photographs of the sources I accessed and possibly doing a transcription of them.

Overall, in allowing me to physically access relevant primary material and in enabling me to exhibit leadership, my research trip was interesting and character building. It was fascinating to get so close to the actual correspondence and material that Dix and her often notable acquaintances had written by hand. Furthermore, it was a delight to enter a research environment at both archives that was always welcoming, accessible, and had a collaborative atmosphere. In essence, this summer and the previous summer have enabled me to gain a taste of research in various research settings, and I can’t recommend the Laidlaw program enough to other students for offering such opportunities.


I wish to thank my supervisors, John Hudson and Caroline Humfress in the Department of History, for their ongoing support and advice; CAPOD for organising and coordinating the Laidlaw Scholarship; and Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay for enabling us to have this opportunity in which to gain experience of academic research.

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