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Richard von Krafft-Ebing was born in 1840 in Manheim, Germany, then known as the territory Baden, to Friedrich von Krafft-Ebing and Clara Antonia Mittermaier. His father’s position in society was one of nobility, holding the senior rank of Oberamtmann, comparable to the British designation Baron; thereby adding the title Freiherr to his full name of Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing. His mother Clara, a socialite and daughter to a prominent German lawyer, gave birth to him within a year of her marriage at around age nineteen. In the fourteen years that followed, she gave birth to three more children, the youngest and second-most-famous being Hans Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing. She died the following year at or before age thirty-five. Around this time, at age fourteen, Krafft-Ebing was sent to live with his maternal grandfather, Carl Joseph Anton Mittermaier, purportedly the spark that ignited the young Krafft-Ebing’s interest in the intersection of medicine and law, dubbed “forensics”. As a child Krafft-Ebing proved himself to be quite proficient at the piano, and numerous anecdotes of his future colleagues tell of him playing for the patients he served in various asylums, sometimes improvising a humorous song on the spot. This endeavor of his, in no way relating to his professional duties, is a true to life example of his belief that novel and communal activities contributed to the well-being of the patient, discussed later in this text.
Krafft-Ebing began his studies at Heidelberg University, entering a medical and academic environment wholly unimaginable to modern students of medicine or psychology; surgeries were performed in open theatres and often attended by journalists and non-students, psychiatry was barely acknowledged as science and therefore not compulsory to a medical degree, “lunatic” and “perversion” were legitimate medical terms, and “methods” such as hypnotism and craniometry were actually given serious consideration. It was here in this prudish-but-curious Victorian setting, still capable of delivering nightmares to anyone who ever opened a Psychology 101 text, that Krafft-Ebing cultivated theories and friendships that would span the rest of his life. Of most note is the relationship garnered between himself and Heinrich Schüle, a fellow student of Heidelberg, lifelong friend, and eventual author of Krafft-Ebing’s obituary.
By following his life’s path, it soon becomes clear that Krafft-Ebing intended to pursue an academic as well as a clinical position from the beginning. In 1800s Germany, the process of beginning medical practice differed considerably from current procedures; a student could complete their medical coursework and immediately begin practice upon being granted a license from a government agency. However, if a doctoral degree is desired, the interested student is expected to perform an additional written and oral exam, provide a dissertation, and spend a significant amount of money. These added steps are requiem to modern seekers of a doctorate and do not appear strange or cumbersome; but when taken in Victorian context, a doctorate did not afford privileges even remotely comparable to the present day. It was simply an academic designation, therefore most students at the time did not trouble themselves with the effort; Krafft-Ebing did, returning to Heidelberg for his degree in late 1863 from Zurich, where he spent the previous months recovering from typhoid fever. Near the end of his convalescence he attended a psychiatric demonstration by Wilhelm Griesinger, widely considered to be Krafft-Ebing’s biggest influence. Indeed, the effect seemed immediate, as he penned a letter to his friend Schüle eagerly announcing his interest in psychiatry shortly after arriving in Heidelberg.
Krafft-Ebing worked his way through several brief internships in Vienna, Prague and Berlin, before being offered a position at the Illenau in 1864 by F.W.Chr. Roller, medical director of the asylum and a close friend of his grandfather Mittermaier. The Illenau asylum, brain child of Roller, opened in 1842 under completely different conditions than other establishments of its time. The asylum was built on lush open air grounds, quickly adopted a no-restraint policy, and based their model of care on isolation; that is, isolating the patient from the stressful surroundings that presumably created or aggravated their illness, and placing them in a peaceful, low-impact environment entirely different than the one from which they had come.
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