Emil Kraepelin

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Emil Kraepelin (Neustrelitz, 15 February 1856 – 7 October 1926, Munich) was a German psychiatrist. H.J. Eysenck's Encyclopedia of Psychology identifies him as the founder of modern scientific psychiatry, as well as of psychopharmacology and psychiatric genetics. Kraepelin believed the chief origin of psychiatric disease to be biological and genetic malfunction. His theories dominated psychiatry at the start of the twentieth century and, despite later psychodynamic incursions by Sigmund Freud and his disciples, appeared to enjoy a revival at century's end.


Family and early life

Kraepelin, the son of a civil servant, was born in 1856 in Neustrelitz, in the Mecklenburg district of Germany. He was first introduced to biology by his brother Karl, 10 years older and, later, the director of the Zoological Museum of Hamburg.

Early career

Kraepelin began his medical studies at 18, in Leipzig and Wurzburg, Germany. At Leipzig, where he studied neuropathology under Paul Flechsig and experimental psychology with Wilhelm Wundt, he wrote a prize-winning essay, "The Influence of Acute Illness in the Causation of Mental Disorders." He received his M.D. in 1878. In 1879, Kraepelin went to work with Bernhard von Gudden at the University of Munich, where he completed his thesis, "The Place of Psychology in Psychiatry". Returning to the University of Leipzig in 1882, he worked in Wilhelm Heinrich Erb's neurology clinic and in Wundt's psychopharmacology laboratory. His major work, "Compendium der Psychiatrie", was first published in 1883. In it, he argued that psychiatry was a branch of medical science and should be investigated by observation and experimentation like the other natural sciences. He called for research into the physical causes of mental illness and established the foundations of the modern classification system for mental disorders. Kraepelin proposed that by studying case histories and identifying specific disorders, the progression of mental illness could be predicted, after taking into account individual differences in personality and patient age at the onset of disease [1].

In 1884 he became senior physician in Leubus and the following year he was appointed director of the Treatment and Nursing Institute in Dresden. In 1886, at the age of 30, Kraepelin was named professor of psychiatry at the University of Dorpat (later the University of Tartu) in what is today Estonia (see Burgmair Vol IV). Four years later, he became department head at the University of Heidelberg, where he remained until 1904. Whilst at Dorpat he became the director of the eighty-bed University Clinic. There he began to study and record many clinical histories in detail and "was led to consider the importance of the course of the illness with regard to the classification of mental disorders." Ten years later he announced that he had found a new way of looking at mental illness. He referred to the traditional view as "symptomatic" and to his view as "clinical". This turned out to be his paradigm-setting synthesis of the hundreds of mental disorders classified by the 19th century, grouping diseases together based on classification of syndromes — common patterns of symptoms — rather than by simple similarity of major symptoms in the manner of his predecessors. In fact, it was precisely because of the demonstrated inadequacy of such methods that Kraepelin developed his new diagnostic system.

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