Thomas A. Ban
Neuropsychopharmacology in Historical Perspective
Education in the Field in the Post-Neuropsychopharmacology Era

From William Cullen’s “neuroses” to Johann Christian Reil’s “psychiaterie”

Educational Series 2. Bulletin 6, Chapter 2



            Madness may be as old as mankind (Porter 2002). Yet, development of the discipline dedicated to study and treat “madness,” that was to be referred to as “psychiatry,” began only in the late 18th century. Instrumental to this development was William Cullen (1712-1790), a professor of medicine and physics at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland.          

            Stimulated by the research of Boissier de Sauvages (1706-1767) at the University of Montpellier, in France, who described and classified diseases as botanists describe and classify plants (Sauvages 1768), Cullen (1769, 1777), classified diseases into four classes (pyrexias, neuroses, cachexias and locales), with as many as 19 orders and 132 genera (Doig, Ferguson, Milne and Passmore 1993).

            Cullen (1769), defined disease as an excess or deficiency of “sensibilities “in his “Synopsis Nosologiae Methodicae,” and in his treatise published in 1777 with the title “First Lines of Practice of Physic,” he introduced the term “neuroses” for a class of disease he believed were diseases of the “nerves.” In the same treatise, he characterized the “neuroses” by “injury of sense and motion without idiopathic pyrexia or any other local affection.” Furthermore, he divided the “neuroses” into four “orders” of disease: “comate,” characterized by “diminution of voluntary motion with sleep or deprivation of senses”; “adinamiae,” characterized by diminution of involuntary motions whether vital or natural; “spasmi,” characterized by “irregular motions of the muscles or muscle fibres”; and “vesaniae,” characterized by disorders of judgment without pyrexia or coma” (Littre 1877). 

            In Cullen’s (1777)) classification, the term “vesaniae” corresponds  with  “madness” and the “order” of “vesaniae” includes four ”genus” of disease:  “amentia,“ characterized by “imbecility of judgment, by which people do not perceive, or do not remember the relation of things”;  “melancholia,” characterized by “partial madness” that varies “according to the different subjects concerning which the person raves”; “mania,” characterized by “universal madness”;  and “oneroidynia,” characterized by  “violent and troublesome imagination in time of sleep.”

             Furthermore, Cullen (1777) also recognized that each form (genus) of disease might become manifest in several sub-forms (“species”) of illness. There were three sub-forms of “amentia” (“congenita”: “senilis” and “acqiusita”); eight of “melancholia” (1. “imagination concerning body being in a dangerous condition or that their affairs are in a desperate state”; 2. “imagination concerning a prosperous state of affairs”; 3. “violent love without satyriasis or nymphomania”; 4. “superstitious fear of a future state”; 5 “aversion from motion and all the offices of life”; 6. “restlessness and impatience”; 7. “weariness of life”; and 8. “deception concerning the nature of the patient’s species”); four of “mania (“idiopathic,” “mentalis,” “corpora” and “obscura”); and three of “oneirodynia” (“paraphrosyne a veneris,” “pathemata” and “febrilis”) (Menninger, Mayman and Pruyser 1968).


            Cullen’s (1777) separation of “universal” (total) from “partial” madness on the basis  of “totality” of mental pathology  was to dominate  classifications of insanity in the 19th century from Philippe Pinel’s (1798) and Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol’s (1838) in France, who distinguished between “mania” (universal insanity) and the “monomanias” (partial insanities), to Karl Kahlbaum’s (1863) in Germany, who distinguished between the  “vesanias” (total-universal insanities) and the  “vecordias” (partial insanities).         

            Cullen’s (1777) classification attracted attention in Continental Europe and the United States. Hence, his classifying “madness” as diseases of the “nerves” could not be dismissed by the “mentalists” (referred to by some as “German Romanticists”), a powerful group of physicians at the time who believed that “insanity” was an affliction of the “mind” (Pichot 1983; Shorter 2005). To shift emphasis from the nerves (brain) to the mind (psyche) in the understanding of “madness,” the term “Psychiaterie” was introduced in 1808 by Johann Christian Reil, a professor of medicine in Halle, Germany, the same year John Dalton introduced his “atomic theory” in Part II of his treatise on New System of Chemical Philosophy, in London.   

             The term, “Psychaterie” was replaced by the term “Psychiatrie” by Reil himself and the term “Psychiatrie” was adopted by Johann Christian Heinroth, a professor of medicine in Leipzig (Germany). It was through Heinroth’s influential Textbook on the Disturbances of Psychic Life, published in 1818, that the term “psychiatry” spread around the world (Pichot 1983).




Cullen W. Synopsis Nosologiae Methodicae. Edinburgh: Kincaid & Creech; 1769, 1772.


Cullen W. First Lines of the Practice of Physics. Edinburgh: Kincaid & Creech; 1777.


Dalton J. New System of Chemical Philosophy. London: R. Bickerstaff, Strand; 1808.


Doig A, Ferguson JPS, Milne IA, Passmore R. William Cullen and the Eighteenth Century Medical World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 1993.


Esquirol JED. Des maladies mentales Considerees sous les raports medical hygienique et medico-legal. Paris: JP Bailliere; 1838.


Heinroth JC. Lehrbuch der Störungen des Seelenlebens. Leipzig: Vogel; 1818.


Kahlbaum KL. Die Grouppierung der psychische Krankheiten und die Enteilung der Seelenstoerungen. Danzig: AW Kaufman; 1863.


Littre E. Dictionnaire de la Langua Francoise. Paris: Hachette Cie; 1877.


Menninger K. Mayman M, Pruyser P. The Vital Balance. The Life Process in Mental Health and Illness. New York: The Viking Press; 1968.


Pichot P. A Century of Psychiatry. Paris: Roger Dacosta; 1983.


Pinel P. Nosographie Philosophique ou la Methode de l’Analyse Appliquée a la Medicine. Paris: Brosson; 1798.


Porter R. Madness. A Brief History.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press; 2002.


Reil J. Ueber den Begriff der Medicin und ihre Verzweigungen, besonders in Beziehung auf die Berichtigung der Topik der Psychiaterie. In Reil JC, Hoffbauer JC, eds.  Beyträge zur Beförderung einer Kurmethode auf psychischem Wege. Halle:  Curt’sche Buchhandlung; 1808, pp. 161-279.


Sauvages de la Croix Boissier F. Nosologia Methodica. Amsterdam: Frat de Tournes; 1768.


Shorter E. A Historical Dictionary of Psychiatry. Oxford: University Press; 2005.



February 22, 2018