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Emil Kraepelin: biography of this German psychiatrist

Emil Kraepelin: biography of this German psychiatrist

May 26, 2024

The name of Emil Kraepelin is highly known by most psychologists and psychiatrists of the world as the founder of modern psychiatry.

Among his main contributions, we find that he is responsible for having generated a classification system for mental illnesses based on the clinical manifestation of mentally ill subjects such as those that currently exist (being a pioneer in developing a nosology in this regard) and the distinction between disorders such as early dementia (later called schizophrenia by Bleuler) and manic-depressive psychosis (current bipolar disorder).

In this article we are going to present a brief biography of this important psychiatrist.

Biography of Emil Kraepelin

Emil Kraepelin was born on February 15, 1856 in Neustrelitz, Germany . Son of Emilie Kraepelin and Karl Kraepelin, this last professor. Throughout his life he acquires a taste for botany (probably influenced by one of his brothers, biologist) and great fondness for music, literature and poetry.


Kraepelin felt from his beginnings a great interest by the world of the medicine and the biology, beginning in 1875 to study medicine in the University of Wurzburg. Already during his studies he became very interested in the field of psychiatry and psychology , focusing in that area especially after a stay in the experimental laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt in Lepizig, realizing a course with the father of the scientific psychology and learning the psychophysical methods by him employees. Later he would work as Von Rinecker's assistant in the psychiatric hospital of the aforementioned university.

He received his doctorate in 1878, with a thesis based on the effect of diseases on the appearance of mental disorders in which he also worked on aspects such as the role of psychology in psychiatry.

Post-university training

The one who would be president of his thesis evaluation court, Bernhard von Gudden, would recruit him as his assistant at the psychiatric hospital in Munich, working on aspects related to neuroanatomy for four years.

After that he went on to study neuropathology in 1882 together with Flechsig, again in Leipzig, to later work as a volunteer with Erb and Wundt in the department of nervous diseases and in the experimental laboratory of Wundt, studying especially aspects related to clinical practice despite that he also carried out different investigations on the consumption of substances or fatigue.

Elaboration of the Treaty of Psychiatry

It would be in these years when Wundt would suggest a picture of the different mental disorders. But nevertheless, Kraepelin would go much further than expected, formulating its own classification system based on clinical manifestation of mental problems. In 1883 the Treaty of Psychiatry would be born, which would be the basis for the elaboration of subsequent diagnostic classifications (including the last editions of the DSM). In this important moment in is the one that arises the modern psychiatric nosology.

This classification would be carried out and taken into account not only on the basis of the clinical manifestations but also its etiology, dividing the mental disorders into endogenous and exogenous ones. Kraepelin considered that the causes of psychiatric disorders were mainly biological.

In addition to this important publication, during that same year he was qualified in the department of medicine of the University of Leipzig to subsequently work again with Gudden at the psychiatric hospital in Munich.

In 1886 he was appointed professor at the University of Dorpat, Estonia, where he succeeded Emminghaus. He worked in this position while improving his Treaty until disagreements with the tsar made him leave the post in 1890. He left for Heidelberg, where he would meet and work with Alois Alzheimer, with whom he would eventually contribute to study the now known as Alzheimer disease. I would also study aspects such as sleep and memory.

Early dementia and manic-depressive psychosis

Despite having already published several revisions of his Treatise on Psychiatry it would not be until the sixth edition, published in 1899, that he would elaborate another of his major contributions: the creation and distinction of the concepts of early dementia (current schizophrenia, highlighting the paranoid subtypes, hebephrenic and catatonic) and manic-depressive psychosis (current bipolar disorder), establishing some of its characteristic symptoms through longitudinal studies.

Return to Munich

Together with Alzheimer, in 1903 he would return to Munich, where he would be appointed Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Munich and would participate in founding and directing the Königlische Psychiatrische Klinik. His research at this time focused on the study of mental disorders in different cultures, which would cause him to travel often through different countries.

At this time he would also do research on alcohol, which would cause him to end up becoming a teetotaler and even to make his own non-alcoholic drink, a kind of lemonade called "Kraepelinsekt". He tried to promote the creation of institutions for alcoholics, but his proposal was not supported.

The aforementioned clinic would be transformed into the German Institute for Psychiatric Research between 1917 and 1918 , but the arrival of the First World War practically led to bankruptcy (only thanks to the help of the Rockefeller Foundation was prevented its closure).

Death and legacy

The following years were spent working in the Institute and in the then ninth edition of the Treaty of Psychiatry. Emil Kraepelin died on October 7, 1926 in the city of Munich, at seventy years of age.

Kraepelin's legacy is broad: he is the first author to create a psychiatric nosology and a way to classify mental illnesses which has continued to be used until today. Although their diagnostic labels are no longer used, they have given way to other denominations and investigations regarding various disorders.

Bibliographic references:

  • Laín, P. (1975), Universal History of Medicine, Barcelona, ​​Salvat, vol. 7, pp. 289-294.
  • Engstrom, E.J. (1991). Emil Kraepelin. Psychiatry and Public Affairs in Wilhelmine Germany. History of Psychiatry, vol. two; 111-132.

Emil Kraepelin | Riley Taylor | TEDxPascoCountySchools (May 2024).

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