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Ernst Kretschmer

Born 1888
Died 1964

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German psychiatrist, born October 8, 1888, Wüstenrot near Heilbronn, Württemberg; died February 8, 1964, Tübingen.

Biography of Ernst Kretschmer

Ernst Kretschmer is remembered for his correlation of build and physical constitution with personality characteristics and mental illness.

He studied both philosophy and medicine at the University of Tübingen, where he remained as assistant in the neurological clinic after completing his studies in 1913. The next year he published his dissertation on manic-depressive delusions, anticipating his later work in mental illness. He studied hysteria while a military physician during World War I, and developed a treatment in which victims of battle were quieted in dark chambers and treated with electrical impulses.

After the war, Kretschmer returned to Tübingen as a lecturer and began writing books containing his psychological theories. His best known work, Körperbau und Charakter (1921), advanced the theory that certain mental disorders were more common among people of specific physical types.

Kretschmer was habilitated for psychiatry and neurology in Tübingen, and in 1923 became professor extraordinary. He left Tübingen in 1926, when he became professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Marburg. During this period, he produced Hysterie, Reflex und Instinkt (1923), in which he suggested that the formation of symptoms in hysteria is initially conscious but is then taken over by automatic mechanisms and becomes unconscious, and Geniale Menschen (1929). In 1933 Krestchmer resigned as president of the German society of Psychotherapy in protest against the Nazi takeover of the government. But unlike other prominent German psychologists he remained in Germany during World War II. After the war Kretschmer returned to Tübingen and remained there as professor of psychiatry and director of the neurological clinic until 1959.

Kretschmer posited three chief constitutional groups: the tall, thin astenic type; the more muscular athletic type, and the rotund pyknic type. He suggested that the lanky asthenics and to a lesser degree the athletic types, were more prone to schizophrenia, while the pyknic types were more likely to develop manic-depressive disorders. His work was criticised because his thinner, schizophrenic patients were younger than his pyknic, manic-depressive subjects, so the differences in body type could be explained by differences in age. Nevertheless, Kretschmer’s ideas to some extent entered into popular culture and generated further psychological research.

Kretschmer further developed new methods of psychotherapy and hypnosis, and studied compulsive criminality, recommending adequate provision be made for the psychiatric treatment of prisoners.

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