Emil Kraepelin: biography of this German psychiatrist

Emil Kraepelin’s name is well known to most psychologists and psychiatrists of the world as the founder of modern psychiatry.

Among his main contributions we find that he is responsible for generating a classification system for mental illness based on the clinical manifestation of subjects with mental problems such as those that exist today (being a pioneer in the development nosology) and the distinction between disorders such as dementia precocious (later called Bleuler’s schizophrenia) and manic-depressive illness (current bipolar disorder).

In this article, we will present a brief biography of this important psychiatrist.

Biography of Emil Kraepelin

Emil Kraepelin was born February 15, 1856 in Neustrelitz, Germany. Son of Emilie Kraepelin and Karl Kraepelin, the latter teacher. Throughout his life, he acquired a certain taste for botany (probably under the influence of one of his brothers, a biologist) and a great fondness for music, literature and poetry.


Kraepelin felt from his beginnings a great interest in the world of medicine and biology, from 1875 to study medicine at the University of Wurzburg. Already during his studies he was very interested in the field of psychiatry and psychology, Focus on this area especially after a stay in the experimental laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt in Lepizig, conducting a course with the father of scientific psychology and learning the psychophysical methods used by him. He would later work as Von Rinecker’s assistant at the aforementioned university mental hospital.

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

Post-graduate training

The former chairman of the thesis evaluation committee, Bernhard von Gudden, will recruit him as an assistant at the Munich psychiatric hospital, working on aspects related to neuroanatomy for four years.

After that he will study neuropathology in 1882 with Flechsig, still in Leipzig, and later volunteered with Erb and Wundt in the department of nervous diseases and in Wundt’s experimental laboratory, studying in particular aspects related to clinical practice. . research on substance use or fatigue.

Preparation of the psychiatry treatise

It would be during these years that Wundt would suggest to him to draw up a picture of the various mental disorders. However, Kraepelin would go much further than expected, formulating his own classification system based on clinical manifestation mental problems. In 1883, the Treaty of Psychiatry was born, which served as a basis for the development of subsequent diagnostic classifications (including the latest editions of the DSM). It is at this important moment that modern psychiatric nosology emerges.

This classification would be carried out and would take into account not only the clinical manifestations but also their etiology, dividing mental disorders into endogenous and exogenous disorders. Kraepelin considered the causes of psychiatric disorders to be primarily biological.

In addition to this important publication, in the same year he graduated in the medical department of the University of Leipzig and then worked 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 at this post while improving his treaty until disagreements with the Tsar caused him to leave the post in 1890. He left for Heidelberg, where he met and worked with Alois Alzheimer, with whom he would eventually help to study this post. that we know today. like Alzheimer’s disease. He would also study aspects such as sleep and memory.

Premature dementia and manic depression

Although he had already published several revisions of his Treatise on Psychiatry, it was not until the sixth edition, published in 1899, that he made another of his greatest contributions: the creation and distinction of concepts of dementia. precocious (current schizophrenia, showing paranoid). subtypes, hebephrenic and catatonic) and manic-depressive illness (current bipolar disorder), establishing some of its characteristic symptoms through longitudinal studies.

Return to Munich

Along with Alzheimer’s disease, he returned in 1903 to Munich, where he was appointed professor of psychiatry at the University of Munich and participated in the founding and management of the Königlische Psychiatrische Klinik. His research at this time focused on the study of mental disorders in different cultures, which led him to travel frequently to different countries.

At that time, he would also conduct research on alcohol, which would eventually lead him to return to abstinence and even 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 will be transformed into the German Institute for Psychiatric Research between 1917 and 1918.But the advent of World War I practically led to its bankruptcy (it was only with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation that its closure was avoided).

Death and inheritance

The following years were devoted to working at the Institute and in the ninth edition already at the time of the Treatise on Psychiatry. Emil Kraepelin died on October 7, 1926 in the city of Munich, at the age of seventy.

Kraepelin’s legacy is vast: he is the first author to create a psychiatric nosology and a way to classify mental illness which has continued to be used to this day. Although their diagnostic labels are no longer commonly used, they have given way to other names and research regarding various disorders.

Bibliographical references:

  • Laín, P. (1975), Universal history of medicine, Barcelona, ​​Salvat, vol. 7, p. 289-294.
  • Engstrom, EJ (1991). Emil Kraepelin. Psychiatry and public affairs in Wilhelmine, Germany. History of Psychiatry, vol. 2; 111-132.

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