Ideler, Karl Wilhelm
First name:
Karl Wilhelm
19th century
Field of expertise:
Anthropological psychiatry
Place of birth:
Bentwisch (DEU)
* 25.10.1795
† 29.07.1860
Biography print

German psychiatrist, director of the psychiatric clinic at Charité Berlin


Karl Wilhelm Ideler (1795-1860) was born in Bentwisch, Margraviate of Brandenburg, as the son of a pastor. After his father’s untimely death, he grew up in Berlin with one of his uncles, a well-renowned professor of mathematics (Benzenhöfer 1993: 132). He entered medical school in Berlin in 1811 and earned his doctorate in 1820 with a dissertation titled De principio nervorum activo imponderabili. He spent the following years as a general practitioner in the cities of Bernau, Rathenow and Genthin before becoming the head of the department for the mentally ill at Charité Berlin in 1828 (Schipperges 1962: 10). Ideler gained the formal qualification for professorship (habilitation) in 1831 and was appointed an associate professor at Berlin University in 1839. In 1840, he became a full professor and director of the newly established psychiatric university clinic, a post that he held until his death in 1860 (cf. Haack & Kumbier 2004).


Work and legacy

Ideler conceptualised “madness” as both a result and an extreme form of passion. Having outlined this idea already in his first book, Anthropologie für Arzte (Anthropology for Physicians; 1827), he systematically developed the concept in his main work, Grundriss der Seelenstörungen (Outline of Soul Treatment; 2 vols., 1835 and 1838). Studying the biographies of mentally disturbed individuals (1841), he tried to understand the patients’ moral development and, even more important, their biographies in order to analyse and classify the pathogenic effects of excessive and exaggerated emotions. He clearly distinguished between “idiopathic forms of madness” – madness in the proper sense – with purely psychological causes (e.g., childhood experiences, lifestyle) and “sympathetic forms” with primarily physical causes that do not require any psychiatric treatment as such (cf. Benzendörfer 1993: 175).


Like other anthropologically oriented psychiatrists of his time, Ideler conceptualised human beings as having a body and a soul: even though the earthly presence relies on both body and soul, the immortal soul is independent from and superior to the body. Based on this concept of a “double existence”, the treatment of the mad and insane should be guided by strict moral and pedagogical principles. According to Ideler, the patients resembled immature children: “Just like naughty children, the insane are well aware of their defects but unable to correct them through their own efforts (1832: 435; our translation). This attitude reflects the Christian-bourgeois concept of a virtuous, decent and modest lifestyle. The treatment was paternalistic and the patients were expected to be obedient: bridling their “excessive passions” would allow reason to regain a sense of public spirit and the right bourgeois values.


Ideler’s place in the history of German psychiatry

Following Johann Baptist Friedreich’s (1796-1862) famous 1836 distinction between “psychic” and “somatic” approaches to psychiatry, Ideler was long regarded as a typical “psychicist”, who stood in contrast to the science-oriented “somaticists” (e.g., C. W. M. Jacobi, W. Griesinger). Today we know that this distinction, albeit widely accepted until far into the 20th century, was too narrow and did not acknowledge the fact that particularly the methods of treatment were quite similar (Kutzer 2003). Ideler is now seen as one of the main proponents of an anthropological and person-centered orientation in early German psychiatry during the first half of the 19th century (Haack & Kumbier 2006).


Literature                                                                                                                                                                Benzenhöfer, U. (1993): Psychiatrie und Anthropologie in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts. Hürtgenwald: Pressler.

Brückner, B. (2007). Delirium und Wahn. Geschichte, Selbstzeugnisse und Theorien von der Antike bis 1900. Vol. 2. Das 19. Jahrhundert – Deutschland. Hürtgenwald: Pressler.

Dörner, K. (1969): Bürger und Irre. Zur Sozialgeschichte und Wissenschaftssoziologie der Psychiatrie. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum 1984.

Friedreich, J. B. (1836): Historisch-kritische Darstellung der Theorien über das Wesen und den Sitz der psychischen Krankheiten. Leipzig: Wigand.

Haack, K., E. Kumbier (2004): Carl Wilhelm Ideler (1795-1860). Einführung in Leben und Werk. In: Nervenarzt 75, (11), pp. 1136-1138.

Haack, K., E. Kumbier (2006): Carl Wilhelm Ideler (1795-1860): A controversial German psychiatrist of the 19th century. In: Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 77, (8), pp. 947.

Ideler, C. L. (1895): Carl Wilhelm Ideler und seine Stellung in der Entwicklung der Psychiatrie. In: Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Psychiatrie 51, pp. 852.

Ideler, C. L. (1820): De principio nervorum activo imponderabili. Dissertatio inauguralis medica. Berolini.

Ideler, C. L. (1827): Anthropologie für Ärzte. Berlin, Landsberg: Enslin.

Ideler, C. L: (1831): De moxae efficacia in animi morborum medela. Berolini: Schadli.

Ideler, C. W. (1832): Autobiographien geheilter Geisteskranker. In: Literarische Annalen der gesamten Heilkunde 23, pp. 447-473.

Ideler, C. W. (1835): Grundriß der Seelenheilkunde. Theil 1. Berlin: Enslin.

Ideler, C. W. (1838): Grundriß der Seelenheilkunde. Theil 2. Berlin: Enslin.

Ideler, C. W. (1841): Biographien Geisteskranker in ihrer psychologischen Entwicklung. Berlin: Schroeder.

Ideler, C. W. (1847): Der religiöse Wahnsinn erläutert durch Krankengeschichten. Halle: Schwetschke.

Ideler, C. W. (1848): Der Wahnsinn in seiner psychologischen und socialen Bedeutung, erläutert durch Krankengeschichten. Bremen: Schlodtmann.

Ideler, C. W. (1848): Versuch einer Theorie des religiösen Wahnsinns. 1. Theil. Die Erscheinungen des religiösen Wahnsinns. Halle: Schwetschke.

Ideler, C. W. (1850): Versuch einer Theorie des religiösen Wahnsinns. 2. Theil. Die Entwickelung des religiösen Wahnsinns. Halle: Schwetschke.

Kirchhoff, T. (1921): Ideler, Carl Wilhelm (1795-1860). In: T. Kirchhoff: Deutsche Irrenärzte. Einzelbilder ihres Lebens und Wirkens. Berlin: Springer, pp. 152-157.

Kutzer, M. (2003): “‘Psychiker’ als ‘Somatiker’ – ‘Somatiker’ als ‘Psychiker’”. In: E. J. Engstrom, V. Roelcke (eds.): Psychiatrie im 19. Jahrhundert. Basel: Schwabe, pp. 27–47.

Laehr, H. (1862): Nachruf an C. W. Ideler. In: Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Psychiatrie 19, pp. 352-361.

Schipperges, H. (1962): Psychiatrische Konzepte und Einrichtungen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung. In: K.-P. Kisker (ed.). Psychiatrie der Gegenwart, Vol. III, 2nd edition. Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 1-36.

Schipperges, H. (1974): Ideler, Karl Wilhelm. In: Neue Deutsche Biographie. Vol. 10. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 116-118.

Schmiedebach, H. P. (1995): Die Psychiatrie an der Charité auf dem Weg zur Disziplin – zwischen Erziehung und Therapie. In: P. Schneck, H.-U. Lammel (eds.): Die Medizin an der Berliner Charité zwischen 1810 und 1850. Husum: Matthiesen, pp. 111-123.

Wunderlich, G. (1981): Krankheits- und Therapiekonzepte am Anfang der deutschen Psychiatrie. Haindorf, Heinroth, Ideler. Husum: Matthiesen.

Wunderlich, G. (1983): Die psychodynamische Theorie von Ideler (1835). In: Zeitschrift für Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychoanalyse 29, (3), pp. 286-292.


Catharina Bonnemann


Photo: unknown / Source: Wikimedia / [public domain].


Referencing format
Catharina Bonnemann (2015): Ideler, Karl Wilhelm.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:06.12.2023)