Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926)

Emil Kraepelin

Emil Kraepelin was a 19th century psychiatrist who theorized that biological abnormalities and genetic mutations were the primary causes of psychiatric conditions. He is widely considered the father of modern psychiatry.

Professional Life 

Emil Kraepelin was born in Neustrelitz, Germany on February 15, 1856. He studied medicine at the University of Wurzburg and in Leipzig. After he received his MD, Kraepelin worked with Bernhard von Gudden at the University of Munich. In 1882, Kraepelin returned to Leipzig, where he worked in Wilhelm Wundt’s psychological research laboratory—the first of its kind—before he relocated to Dorpat (now Estonia) to work as a visiting professor from 1885-1891. Next, Kraepelin worked as a professor at the University of Heidelberg for more than a decade before establishing the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Munich in 1903. He also founded the German Research Institute of Psychiatry in 1917.

At the University of Dorpat, Kraepelin headed a clinic and began to study the clinical histories of the patients he saw. He realized that studying the course of illnesses—identifying patterns of symptoms—could make it possible to classify psychiatric disorders. This experience led to his “clinical” view of mental illness, which differed from the traditional “symptomatic” views. Previously, psychiatrists had theorized that similar symptoms resulted from a single disorder.

His first major publication, Compendium der Psychiatrie, called for medical research into psychological illnesses. Kraepelin believed that studying mental illness scientifically through experimentation and observation would reveal precursors to mental illness. Kraepelin was directly responsible for today’s classification system of mental disorders.

Contribution to Psychology

One of Kraepelin’s most significant achievements was in the identification and distinction of two specific disorders. Kraepelin identified manic depression and dementia praecox, later termed schizophrenia, as distinct forms of psychosis. He considered manic depression to be an episodic, or periodic, disorder that is not neurodegenerative, whereas schizophrenia resulted in permanent cognitive impairment. The distinction between these two forms of psychosis lies in the pattern of symptoms, not the similarity of symptoms.

Kraepelin viewed mental illness in a clinical light rather than a pathological light. Additionally, he focused on the genetic, biological patterns evident in individuals with these illnesses, primarily with respect to family history. Kraepelin postulated that the course of symptoms and the realized effect throughout one’s life was a factor for classification as well. In Kraepelin's laboratory at the University of Munich, Alois Alzheimer researched and identified Alzheimer dementia.

Kraepelin and Sigmund Freud were contemporaries, but they never met, and Kraepelin viewed Freud’s psychoanalysis as impractical and unscientific. In addition, Kraepelin was an advocate for eugenics, as he believed certain groups of people were genetically predisposed to mental disorders, and he was a staunch proponent of abstinence from alcohol.

Although few people are aware of his influence, Kraepelin’s work is at the foundation of all diagnostic measures used in psychology today, including the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Kraepelin also pioneered research in psychopharmacology.


  1. Ebert, A., & Bar, K. (2010). Emil kraepelin: A pioneer of scientific understanding of psychiatry and psychopharmacology. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 52(2), 191-192. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.64591
  2. Emil Kraepelin. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/323108/Emil-Kraepelin

Last Update: 07-23-2015

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