Emil Kraepelin: Biography, Theory & Classification System

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Emil Kraepelin is credited with founding pharmacopsychology and with the first classification of mental disorders. In this lesson we'll explore the life and beliefs of this German psychiatrist, whose theories are still influential in modern psychiatry.

A Pioneer in Psychiatry

There are a few names that stand out when we think about the study of the brain: Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Wilhelm Wundt, and Hermann Rorschach, just to name a few. But a name that may be less familiar to you is Emil Kraepelin, who is considered the founder of the field of pharmacopsychology (today called psychopharmacology). Just like it sounds, this field is a combination of two different ones and looks at how to treat mental disorders with medications. This includes things like how long medications stay in the body, interactions between different medications, the effects of different types of medications, and even how genetics plays a role in how medications work in the body.

Emil Kraepelin
Emil Kraepelin

But Kraepelin is most recognized for his work classifying mental disorders. Even after his death, his work continued to be of influence, and in the 1980s it had an impact on psychiatrists in the thorough revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM. This is a considered the 'dictionary' of mental illness and is used by psychiatrists to make diagnoses of their patients.

Life & Education

Kraepelin was born in Germany in 1856. He earned his M.D. from the University of Würtzburg in 1878, and founded the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Munich, where he served as professor from 1903 to 1922. He then became director of the Munich Research Institute of Psychiatry, and was there until his death in 1926.

It was during his time as a student that he met Wilhelm Wundt, who is credited with teaching psychology as a science instead of a branch of philosophy. Wundt is also known as the founder of experimental psychology, and Kraepelin used many of Wundt's experimental techniques to study the effects of substances on human behavior. As a scientist, Kraepelin carried out numerous experimental studies, and as a clinician, he saw an incredible number of patients. He kept extensive notes on his observations of these patients and their illnesses, and he is known to have written in vivid and insightful detail.

Kraepelin's Classifications

Though he wasn't the first to come up with the idea of a classification system for mental illness, he was the first to put it into a real model that was useful for diagnosing and treating patients. This work, his Compendium der Psychiatrie, was published in 1883 and was where he first presented his classification of mental disorders.

Regarded as his main achievement, Kraepelin's classification divided mental disorders into those that had a deteriorating progression of the illness and those that were episodic in nature. We can still see this classification today in modern psychiatry with the group that contains schizophrenia and other deteriorating disorders and the group that contains mood disorders. In fact, it was Kraepelin's classification that first made the distinction between bipolar disorder, which was previously called manic-depression, and schizophrenia, which was previously referred to as dementia praecox (premature dementia).

Kraepelin's Beliefs

As mentioned, Kraepelin performed numerous experiments, many of which led to the development of the field of pharmacopsychology. He was the first to combine tests of substances such as alcohol and caffeine with psychological tests, and the results of these tests have been supported by other similar studies.

Kraepelin is considered the founder of the field of pharmacopsychology
various pills

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