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Am J Psychiatry. 2015 Dec;172(12):1190-6. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15050665. Epub 2015 Sep 11.

Emil Kraepelin: Icon and Reality.

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From the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry, Munich, and the Department of History, Humboldt University, Berlin; and the Virginia Institute of Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics and the Departments of Psychiatry and Human and Molecular Genetics, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Richmond.


In the last third of the 20th century, the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926) became an icon of postpsychoanalytic medical-model psychiatry in the United States. His name became synonymous with a proto-biological, antipsychological, brain-based, and hard-nosed nosologic approach to psychiatry. This article argues that this contemporary image of Kraepelin fails to appreciate the historical contexts in which he worked and misrepresents his own understanding of his clinical practice and research. A careful rereading and contextualization of his inaugural lecture on becoming chair of psychiatry at the University of Tartu (known at the time as the University of Dorpat) in 1886 and of the numerous editions of his famous textbook reveals that Kraepelin was, compared with our current view of him, 1) far more psychologically inclined and stimulated by the exciting early developments of scientific psychology, 2) considerably less brain-centric, and 3) nosologically more skeptical and less doctrinaire. Instead of a quest for a single "true" diagnostic system, his nosological agenda was expressly pragmatic and tentative: he sought to sharpen boundaries for didactic reasons and to develop diagnoses that served critical clinical needs, such as the prediction of illness course. The historical Kraepelin, who struggled with how to interrelate brain and mind-based approaches to psychiatric illness, and who appreciated the strengths and limitations of his clinically based nosology, still has quite a bit to teach modern psychiatry and can be a more generative forefather than the icon created by the neo-Kraepelinians.

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