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Kretschmer, Ernst

Kretschmer, Ernst



Ernst Kretschmer (1888–1964), German physician and psychologist, was born in Wüstenrot near Heilbronn, the son of a Wurttemberg pastor. The diversity of physical and mental constitutions that existed in Kretschmer’s own family, especially the difference in temperament between his parents, may very well have planted the seed for his best-known workPhysique and Character (1921). His mother was sensitive, humorous, artistic, and lively; while his father, a profound thinker and idealist philosopher, was so Spartan, sober, dry, and laconic that he appeared to lack aesthetic sensibility. It does seem significant that Kretschmer was initially most successful in elaborating the pyknic–cyclothymic group of types to which his mother belonged. Beyond this he did best in developing the contrast between cyclothymic and schizothymic temperaments; his father was an almost pure ex-ample of a schizothyme.

Kretschmer studied philosophy at the University of Tubingen but after two semesters switched to medicine. He also studied medicine in Munich, where he was greatly influenced by Emil Kraepelin, and at the Eppendorf Hospital in Hamburg. He had intended to establish himself as a physician in a hospital or clinic and had no thought of an academic career. However, his doctoral dissertation, Wahnbildung und manisch–depressiver Symptom-komplex (1914), a notably mature work for a beginner, had attracted the attention of Robert Gaupp, a Tubingen psychiatrist and one of Kretschmer’s professors. Gaupp, who saw the special quality of Kretschmer’s mind, arranged—almost against Kretschmer’s wishes—a regular position for him in his clinic.

After three months in Gaupp’s clinic, Kretschmer volunteered for military service. Despite his limited clinical experience, his first assignment was to establish a neurological department in the Bad Mergentheim military hospital. The immediate practical problems of treating his patients forced him to read deeply on neurology and the theories of neuroses and hysteria. His study and his therapeutic work led him to do research on the regularities underlying hysterical phenomena. The first and most important of these regularities is the law of the arbitrary intensification of reflexes. From his observation of a long and complex series of phenomena he also developed an important new approach to neuropsychological science which he called multidimensional thinking, multidimensional diagnosis, and multidimensional therapy. Accordingly, he sought rigorously in his research to establish the etiology of particular pathological elements as well as their interrelations in a clinical picture.

In 1918 Kretschmer left Bad Mergentheim to become aPrivatdozent at Tübingen. His inaugural lecture was on the influence of psychiatry on the development of modern ethical conceptions. In this lecture he traced the influence of scientific thought on the development of ethical norms and showed the consequences of this influence for psychiatric reports, pedagogy, and criminology. He ended with the plea that the goals of education be defined according to each individual’s constitutional limits and that society be protected from the uneducable.

Kretschmer was a prolific author and, from 1919 on, wrote a book almost every year. The publication ofPhysique and Character in 1921 was enthusiastically acclaimed by Gaupp and others; un-fortunately, Kretschmer’s name came to be too exclusively linked with this book. It gave rise to violent scientific feuds which were to flare up again during the Nazi period. Differences in social philosophy undoubtedly accounted for the polemics— often passionate—against Kretschmer’s theories; yet his concept of types has gradually become part of popular culture and has been prominent in some contemporary psychological research. Most notably, William Sheldon has devised sophisticated photo-graphic and anthropometric techniques to assess constitutional components and has attempted to re-late constitution to temperament (Sheldon 1940). Hans J. Eysenck has also carried out research on this subject (1950).

In 1926 Kretschmer left Tubingen to become professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Marburg (Lahn). In this position he demonstrated that he was a good judge of men. He picked able young assistants and gave them the freedom to do research in the direction for which they were best suited. F. Mauz developed the use of constitutional types for diagnostic purposes, while W. Enke introduced new constitutional-biological concepts into experimental psychology.

From 1946 until his retirement as director of the Neurological Clinic of the University of Tubingen in 1959, Kretschmer was concerned chiefly with the development and elaboration of research on the constitutional biology and psychopathology of child-hood and youth. He analyzed variations in the rate of development of children, the various crises of puberty, the inherent regularities of sexual development, and the findings on the blood chemistry, endocrinology, and pharmacology of constitutional types. He also worked out new techniques of hypnosis and psychotherapy.

As he had done in 1918, Kretschmer again boldly took up ethical and religious problems, especially in hisPsychotherapeutische Studien (1949). This book was followed by fundamental work on the diagnosis of compulsive criminals, with recommendations for modifications in the criminal law that would permit adequate treatment of these criminals. In connection with the developmental patterns he had discovered, he set forth new approaches to guidance in puberty crises and schizophrenia. He also pointed to the gains that could accrue in preventive medicine from having more knowledge of the tendencies toward disease of different constitutional types.

In the field of the healthy personality Kretschmer called attention to the significance of the constitution in mental achievement. This connection is of particular importance to those responsible for the selection of people according to their potential for achievement and for subsequent fulfillment of that potential. Proper selection is facilitated by tailoring the demands as closely as possible to the specific inherent achievement potential of a given constitution.


[For the historical context of Kretschmer’s work, see the biography ofKraepelin;for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seePsychology, article onConstitutional psychology.]


1914 Wahnbildung und manisch–depressiver Symptom-komplex. Berlin: Reimer. → Reprinted from Volume 71 of the Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Psychiatric.

(1918) 1950 Der sensitive Beziehungswahn. 3d ed. Heidelberg (Germany): Springer.

1919 Psychogene Wahnbildungen bei traumatischer Hirnschwäche.Annalen für Gewerbe und Bauwesen 84: 272–300.

(1921) 1936 Physique and Character: An Investigation of the Nature of Constitution and the Theory of Ternperament. New ed., rev. London: Routledge. → First published in German.

(1922) 1952 A Text-book of Medical Psychology. London: Hogarth. → First published in German. The twelfth German edition was published in 1963 by Thieme.

(1923) 1960 Hysteria, Reflex, and Instinct. New York:Philosophical Library. → First published in German.

(1929) 1931 The Psychology of Men of Genius. New York: Harcourt. → First published asGeniale Menschen. References to music, poetry, and the visual arts, which pervade all of Kretschmer’s work, are particularly apparent in this book.

1936 KRETSCHMER, ERNST; and ENKE, WILLI. Die Per-sonlichkeit der Athletiker. Leipzig: Thieme.

1949 Psychotherapeutische Studien. Stuttgart (Germany):Thieme.

1963 Gestalten und Gedanken: Erlebnisse. Stuttgart (Germany): Thieme.


ENKE, W. 1964a Ernst Kretschmer zum 75. Geburtstag.Fortschritte der Medizin 81, no. 23:913 only.

ENKE, W. 1964b Prof. Dr. med., Dr. phil. h.c., Dr. med. h.c. Ernst Kretschmer: In Memoriam.Fortschritte der Medizin 82, no. 13:477 only.

EYSENCK, HANS J. (1950) 1954 Cyclothymia and Schizothymia as a Dimension of Personality: Historical Re-view. Pages 162–188 in Howard Brand (editor), The Study of Personality: A Book of Readings. New York:Wiley; London: Chapman. → First published in Volume 19 of theJournal of Personality.

SHELDON, WILLIAM H. 1940 The Varieties of Human Physique: An Introduction to Constitutional Psychology. New York: Harper.

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