The History of Bipolar: Through the Ages—It’s Been There

Last Updated: 4 Sep 2020

Medical science in the digital age continues to move forward in search of broader understanding and better treatments to manage bipolar, now with patients as active partners in maintaining their stability.

There’s no time like the present to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Comparisons between what we know now versus what we knew then reveal that, indeed, our understanding of the disorder has come a long way.

Though it’s impossible to trace the first case of bipolar depression or mania, much is known about the evolution of its identification and subsequent classification and naming as manic depression—now known generally as bipolar—and about those specialists whose breakthroughs have contributed so much to our present-day treatment expertise.


As might be expected, the early history of bipolar and other mental disorders is not pretty, but rather a testimony to ignorance, misunderstanding, and fear. Consider that in 300 to 500 AD, some people with bipolar disorder were euthanized, according to Cara Gardenswartz, PhD, who is in private practice in Beverly Hills, California, with specific expertise in bipolar disorder and in its history.

“In the earliest days of documentation, these people were viewed as ‘crazy,’ possessed by the devil or demons,” Dr. Gardenswartz says. Their treatment or punishment, she explains, included restraint or chaining; their blood was let out; they were given different potions, or electric eels were applied to the skull—“much in the way witches have been treated in various cultures. In fact, witchcraft was often used to try and ‘cure’ them,” Gardenswartz says. “Less is known about bipolar disorder from 1000 to 1700 AD, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, we adopted a healthier overall approach to mental disorders.”

Consider these developments in the evolution of bipolar disorder, which was observed and studied in the second century by physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia—a city in ancient Turkey. In his scholarly work, On Etiology and Symptomatology of Chronic Illnesses, Aretaeus identified mania and depression; he felt they shared a common link and were two forms of the same disease. The ancient Greeks and Romans coined the terms “mania” and “melancholia” and used waters of northern Italian spas to treat agitated or euphoric patients—and, in a forecast of things to come, believed that lithium salts were absorbed into the body as a naturally occurring mineral. In 300–400 BC, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had thanked “melancholia” for the gifts of artists, poets, and writers, the creative minds of his time. Conversely, in the Middle Ages, those afflicted with mental illness were thought to be guilty of wrongdoing: their illness was surely a manifestation of bad deeds, it was thought.

In 1621, Robert Burton—English scholar, writer, and Anglican clergyman—wrote what many deem a classic of its time, a review of 2,000 years of medical and philosophical “wisdom”: The Anatomy of Melancholia, a treatise on depression that defined it as a mental illness in its own right. In 1686, Swiss physician Théophile Bonet named “manico-melancolicus” and linked mania and melancholia.

Measurable progress was made in the early 1850s when Jean-Pierre Falret, a French psychiatrist, identified folie circulaire or circular insanity—manic and depressive episodes that were separated by symptom-free intervals. He broke substantial new academic ground when he chronicled distinct differences between simple depression and heightened moods. In 1875, because of his work, the term “manic-depressive psychosis,” a psychiatric disorder, was coined. Scientists also credit Falret with recognizing a genetic link associated with this disease.

“We owe the categorization of bipolar disorder as an illness to Falret,” write Jules Angst, MD, and Robert Sellaro, BSc, of Zurich University Hospital in Switzerland, in their September 2000 paper, “Historical Perspectives and the Natural History of Bipolar Disorder,” published in Biological Psychiatry.

“It is remarkable how Falret’s description of symptoms and hereditary factors are so similar to descriptions found in present-day books and journals,” writes Erika Bukkfalvi Hilliard, MSW, RSW, of Royal Columbian Hospital in New West-minster, British Columbia, in her 1992 book Bipolar Disorder, Manic-Depressive Illness. “Falret even encouraged physicians to diversify medications used in the treatment of manic-depressive illness in the hopes that one of them might one day discover an effective drug therapy.”

Dr. Angst and Sellaro note that con-currently in 1854 French neurologist and psychiatrist Jules Gabriel François Baillarger used the term folie à double forme to describe cyclic (manic–depressive) episodes. Baillarger apparently also recognized a distinct difference between what we now know as bipolar and schizophrenia.

In their treatise, the Swiss specialists detail more specifics about the face of an emerging illness, particularly as it relates to “mixed states.” They write, “The history of the concept of mixed states [symptoms of mania and depression occurring simultaneously] … were probably already known at the beginning of the 19th century and named ‘mixtures’ … and ‘middle forms.’” A 1995 paper by French psychiatrist T. Haugsten, “Historical Aspects of Bipolar Disorders in French Psychiatry,” also traces the term “mixed states’ to J. P. Falret’s son, Jules Falret.

“At the end of the 19th century, in spite of the contributions of Falret, Baillarger, and [German psychiatrist Karl Ludwig] Kahlbaum (among others), most clinicians continued to consider mania and melancholia as distinct and chronic entities with a deteriorating course,” José Alberto Del Porto, Paulista School of Medicine of the Federal University of São Paulo, states in an October 2004 research paper published in Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria. However, the acceptance of this theory would not prevail forever.


German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856–1926) is one of the most recognizable names in the history of bipolar. He is sometimes referred to as the founder of modern scientific psychiatry and psycho-pharmacology. He believed mental illness had a biological origin and he grouped diseases based on classification of common patterns of symptoms, rather than by simple similarity of major symptoms, as those who preceded him had done. This forward-thinking specialist postulated that a specific brain or other biological pathology was at the root of each of the major psychiatric disorders. Kraepelin felt that the classification system needed revising, and so he did just that.

In the early 1900s, after extremely detailed research, he formulated the separate terms “manic-depression” and “dementia praecox,” the latter later named schizophrenia” by Eugène Bleuler (1857–1940). Widespread use of the term “manic depression” prevailed until the early 1930s—it was even used until the 1980s and 1990s. Also during the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud broke new ground when he used psychoanalysis with his manic-depressive patients: biology then took a back seat. He implicated childhood trauma and unresolved developmental conflicts in bipolar disorder.

In the early 1950s, German psychiatrist Karl Leonhard and colleagues initiated the classification system that led to the term “bipolar,” differentiating between unipolar and bipolar depression. Dr. Gardenswartz notes that “once there was a difference between bipolar and other disorders, individuals suffering from mental illnesses were better understood, and in turn—along with the progress in psychopharmacology—were able to receive better treatment.”

The term “bipolar” logically emphasizes “the two poles” of mood episodes, according to the prominent psychiatrist Robert L. Spitzer, MD, who was a major force in developing the modern approach to classifying and diagnosing psychiatric illnesses. People with unipolar depression experience low mood episodes only, while people with bipolar depression experience both depressed and elevated moods in a cyclical manner. (In some cases of bipolar I disorder, people have manic episodes only.)

Dr. Spitzer led the task force that wrote the third version—an undeniably major revision—of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). After DSM-III was published in 1980, the reference work became so influential it is often referred to as the “bibIe” of American psychiatry. (Specialists in many other countries use the International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, or ICD.)

Among the monumental changes in the DSM-III, the term “manic-depression” was dropped and “bipolar disorder” introduced—eliminating references to patients as “maniacs.” Further revisions of the DSM over the years have clarified inconsistencies in diagnostic criteria and incorporated updated information based on research findings, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The APA issued the latest edition, DSM-5, in 2013.

Noted American neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, MD, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, has said that whatever the changes in the DSM over the years, the reference work ensures that clinicians use the same terms in the same way.

Each edition has also reflected changes in philosophy in psychiatric practice. For example, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) noted that the DSM-5 takes a “lifespan” perspective that recognizes the importance of age and development on the onset, manifestation, and treatment of psychiatric disorders.

When the DSM-5 came out, an editorial in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders predicted that some of the changes should address an “under-recognition” of bipolar disorders. The chapter traditionally covering “mood disorders” was broken into separate chapters for unipolar depressive disorders and bipolar disorders. In addition to bipolar I (“classic” manic-depression), bipolar II (depression plus hypomania), and cyclothymic disorder (mood episodes that don’t meet the full diagnostic criteria for either bipolar I or II), the new chapter includes a more flexible category for “bipolar-like phenomena.”

Furthermore, the criteria for diagnosing elevated mood states now includes an emphasis on shifts in energy level and goal-directed activity. The editorial writers felt this would make it easier to distinguish bipolar depressions from unipolar depressions in the absence of a current hypo/manic episode, since notable upticks in energy and activity would be easier for individuals to identify and recall in self-reports.

Continue Reading “The History of Bipolar”

Printed as “The History of Bipolar,” Winter 2020
(Updated and expanded from the Spring 2006 issue to incorporate advances over the past decade.)

About the author
Stephanie Stephens, M.A is an 18-year journalist and content producer, specializing in health and healthcare, investigations, celebrities, pets, lifestyle, and business. She writes for magazines and online publications, networks, hospitals and health systems, corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, as well as advertising and marketing agencies. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, Everyday Health, WebMD, in content for the American Academy of Neurology, National MS Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and more. She has written for, Family Circle, Cooking Light, Parade, USA Today and others. She’s currently producing a television series, and completed her master’s in journalism at New York University. Stephanie has lived in 16 cities, is a resident of New Zealand by application, and is committed to improving animal welfare. Follow Stephanie at, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
  1. Outstanding article on bipolar thru the centuries. My own BPll dates back to 1955 when the diagnosis was Schizophrenia& treatment was hospitalization for 3 months plus chlorpromazine. Now,diagnosis is BPll & Rx is lamictal+budeprion+serroquel. All of that history is making sense of BP for me. Thanks for a great discussion.

  2. I just self-published my book, “A Life of Unleasheld Mania,” which features my manic episodes starting in 1980. I am now 64 and my current meds keep me in check. Unfortunately I have lost friends some relatives and other things like jobs, housing and so-forth. And I have also been admitted to over 150 institutional facilities. The cops and others know me well…When will it stop!

  3. There are questions about bipolaity being genetic. I found this useful:

    1. Hello! We also have a new article on this exact question! Here you go:

  4. …and now we have medications of dubious value whose effects vary from one individual to another unpredictably, which cause horrific side effects including obesity, which can cause people to die from COVID. GREAT! One of these days our lovely medications will appear in the lineup with witches and electric eels.

  5. Another awesome article for the fortunate who have access to quality care. Consider, too, that many villagers in the world even today experience physical restraint and lack of care. We are all one.

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