Bipolar Disorder: A History

Bipolar disorder and many aspects of the mental illness have been apparent throughout history. Today it is one of the most researched neurological disorders, claiming to affect over 2% of adults in the United States alone (Krans and Cherney, 2016). Evidence of links between mania and depression have been seen as early as the 1st century in Greece (Krans and Cherney, 2016). Aretaeus of Cappadocia, an ancient Greek physician,  in the 1st century AD documented patients who “laugh, play dance” and then become “torpid, dull and sorrowful” (Burton, 2012) at other times. Ancient Greeks and Romans have been credited for using terms such as “mania” and  “melancholia” which can correspond to today’s “manic” and “depressive” (Krans and Cherney, 2016). They also documented the use of lithium salts in baths to treat manic and depressive episodes affecting those with bipolar disorder (Krans and Cherney, 2016).

In the 17th century, Theophilus Bonet linked mania and melancholy and named it “manico-melancolicus” (Krans and Cherney, 2016) after performing 3,000 autopsies. During this same time, Robert Burton addressed some issues of treating melancholy with just music and dance in his book The Anatomy of Melancholy (Krans and Cherney, 2016).  

It wasn’t until Jean-Pierre Falret’s publication in the 19th century, that there was movement into understanding bipolar disorder. Falret, described “circular insanity” (Krans and Cherney, 2016) which is a phenomenon where people experience severe excitement and depressive periods of time. Falret also observed that the diagnosis of “circular insanity” was somehow linked to ancestry in some cases. Jules Baillarger called his observance “dual-form insanity” (Burton, 2012) during this time.

Although both manic and depressive conditions have been studied, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the disorder got its current name, when modern awareness of these conditions were combined into one illness – bipolarity (Burton, 2012). The term manic-depressive illness dates back to the 1950s and the term bipolar disorder dates back to the 1980s (Burton, 2012); however, the later of the two seems to be a more appropriate name and less stigmatized socially, causing it to be a more popular title. On the other hand, some psychiatrists and patients feel as though manic-depressive illness mirrors the nature of the disorder more precisely in words (Burton, 2012).  

Wording as we can see contributes to stigmatization in society and culture as a whole. How we see a word being used in media such as television, on the internet and on the radio contributes to the attitude we attach to that word. The word bipolar is easier to express because it doesn’t bring up the same images as the word manic-depressive because manic depressive is more attached to two extremes while the word bipolar is more neutral. It is interesting that we desire to use dipolar in our vernacular in order to possibly teach our children or increase awareness while through a medical lens, the use of manic-depressive is more accurate to the illness. We can also see that the terms circular insanity and dual-form insanity has been dismissed due to the lack of accuracy and strong dictation. The way I see it, either word: bipolar or manic-depressive, is appropriate but we must shy away from the attitudes attached to words that help translate mental illnesses.       


Krans, B., & Cherney, K. (2016, January 28). The History of Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved April 18, 2016,

Burton, N. (2012, June 21). A Short History of Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved April 18, 2016,

(Photo: Getty Images)


+ There are no comments

Add yours