Bipolar disorder has been acknowledged by the medical community for many years, but it is not known exactly when people began to recognize it for what it truly is: a mental disorder with a specific set of symptoms, namely periods of mania followed by periods of extreme depression. However, we do know that depression and mania were both recognized and given names by the ancient Greeks.

It is believed that the earliest descriptions of a relationship between mania and depression were written in the second century.

Bipolar Disorder: Early Descriptions

Soranus of Ephesus, who lived from 98 AD to 177 AD, described depression and mania as separate afflictions but stated that many people believed depression to be a symptom or a result of mania.

However, the earliest known written description of bipolar disorder is accredited to Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a philosopher who lived in Turkey sometime between 30 AD and 150 AD. Aretaeus is recognized as having the most surviving texts on the subject of an illness that has both manic and depressive qualities, though his work was not recognized until many years after it was produced.

History of Contemporary Bipolar Disorder

The basics of the modern idea of bipolar disorder originate from ideas put forth in the 1850s. In 1854, a French researcher named Jules Baillarger put forth ideas describing a biphasic mental illness that caused people to go back and forth between periods of mania and periods of depression.

Two weeks after Baillarger’s ideas were put forth, another French researcher, Jean-Pierre Falret, presented similar findings and conclusions on the disorder. Falret called the disease “circular insanity,” while Baillarger had dubbed it “dual-form insanity.” Falret also was the first to note the connection between bipolar disorder and suicide and was the first to realize that bipolar disorder had a genetic predisposition. Both of these French researchers noted that bipolar disorder differed from simple depression and schizophrenia.

In the early 1900s, a German psychiatrist named Emil Kraepelin researched the effects and symptoms of bipolar disorder by observing untreated individuals with the disorder. He noted the periods of mania and the periods of depression as well as the fact that patients went for periods of time without symptoms of either mania or depression. He came up with the term “manic-depressive psychosis” during this period of observation and study.

Manic-depressive illness became the most-used term for the disorder in the 1950s, and this term is sometimes still used in place of bipolar disorder, which is a more recent name for the illness that was coined in the 1980s.

History of Bipolar Disorder Treatment

It wasn’t until 1950 that an Australian psychiatrist and researcher named John Cade discovered that lithium could be used to treatment manic-depressive psychosis. He experimented with many compounds and their effects on the disorder. This was the first instance of any discovery for a medicinal treatment of a mental disorder, coming even before treatments for schizophrenia and anxiety were discovered.

However, throughout most of the 1960s, bipolar disorder patients were institutionalized in most cases and weren’t given much help, as the government refused to acknowledge bipolar disorder as an actual illness. It wasn’t until the 1970s that laws were enacted to help those with bipolar disorder.

More discoveries are still being made regarding bipolar disorder, and research will continue to provide more insight into this very complex illness.


Caregiver Channels (2007). Brief History of Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved July 18, 2007, from the Caregiver Channels Web site:

Medscape (2007). Historical perspectives and natural history of bipolar disorder. Retrieved July 18, 2007, from the Medscape Web site:

 Posted on : June 13, 2014