Bleuler was born in Zollikon, a small town near Zurich in Switzerland, to Johann Rudolf Bleuler, a wealthy farmer, and Pauline Bleuler-Bleuler. He studied medicine in Zurich, and later studied in Paris, London and Munich after which he returned to Zurich to take a post as an intern at the Burghölzli, a university hospital.
In 1886 Bleuler became the director of a psychiatric clinic at Rheinau, a hospital located in an old monastery on an island in the Rhine. Rheinau was noted at the time for being backward, and Bleuler set about improving conditions for the patients resident there.
Bleuler returned to the Burghölzli in 1898 where he was appointed director.
In the 1890s Bleuler became interested in Sigmund Freud's work, favorably reviewing Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud's Studies on Hysteria. Like Freud, Bleuler believed that complex mental processes could be unconscious. He encouraged his staff at the Burghölzli to study unconscious and psychotic mental phenomena. Influenced by Bleuler, Carl Jung and Franz Riklin used word association tests to integrate Freud's theory of repression with empirical psychological findings. For a time Bleuler even consulted Freud about his own self-analysis. As the leader of a major teaching and research hospital, Bleuler's support for Freud was very important to the early growth of psychoanalysis. By 1911, however, Bleuler withdrew his support for psychoanalysis.
Bleuler is particularly notable for naming schizophrenia, a disorder which was previously known as dementia praecox. Bleuler realized the condition was neither a dementia, nor did it always occur in young people (praecox meaning early) and so gave the condition the purportedly less stigmatising but still controversial name from the Greek roots schizein (σχίζειν, "to split") and phrēn, phren- (φρήν, φρεν-, "mind"). Bleuler treated celebrated Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky after his breakdown in 1919.
Bleuler coined the New Latin word autismus (English translation autism) in 1910 as he was defining symptoms of schizophrenia, deriving it from the Greek word autos (αὐτός, meaning self). According to the Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis by Charles Rycroft, it was Bleuler who introduced the term ambivalence (in 1911).
Bleuler is also recognized today for having a different neurological disorder called Synesthesia, in which information from the sensory systems crosses over with the result that an individual experiences one sensation as another -- tasting colours, hearing numbers or seeing music, for example.