21st Century : Masters : Sigmund Freud
6 May 1856: Sigmund Freud was born in Freiburg, Moravia, which is today in Czechoslovakia but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Freud's ancestry was Jewish. His father, Jakob Freud (1815-96), was a fairly successful wool merchant. Jakob was 40, with two grown sons and already a grandfather, when he was married, for a second time, to Amalie Nathanson (1835-1930). Sigi was the first - and favourite - of Amalie's 8 children.
'A man who has been the favourite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success' - Freud
In 1860, the Freud family moved permanently to Vienna, the ancient capital of the Hapsburg Empire. In 1873 Freud began medical studies at the University of Vienna and finished it in 1881 - three years longer than normal. His special interests were histology and neurophysiology: the scientific study of organic tissues and the nervous system. He wanted to be a scientist - not a doctor.
One of Freud's teachers, Ernst Brucke (1819-92), the great German physiologist, was a founder of mechanism. Mechanism proposed that 'life' should be investigated and understood by the experimental methods of chemistry and physics.
Freud was happy doing scientific work at Brucke's University lab. But Brucke gave him some fatherly advice...'Academic posts are few and badly paid. Your chances of advancement as a Jew are bad'. There was something else - marriage plans. Freud met and fell in love with Martha Bernays (1861 - 1951).
Between 1882-1885, Freud had to face another long period in clinical medicine at the Vienna General Hospital before starting a private practice. First he served as assistant to Hermann Nothnagel (1841 - 1905), Professor of Internal Medicine. He then spent 5 months working in the Psychiatric Clinic under Theodor Meynert (1833 - 92), the greatest brain anatomist and neuropathologist at that time. Between 1884 and 1887 Freud studied the effects of cocaine - starting on himself. He even prescribed it to Martha.
Freud was awarded a small grant to study in Paris with Jean Martin Charcot (1825-93) world-famous neurologist. He had particularly unorthodox in his ideas about hysteria. Hysteria had baffled doctors because the symptoms were apparently not caused by any physical damage. Charcot rejected the traditional diagnosis of the time, stating that hysteria wasn't imaginary - but a neurosis. Nor was it exclusively female. He also demonstrated a startling resemblance between hysteria and hypnotism. Hypnotic suggestion could be used to induce hysterical symptoms - such as paralysis. Charcot was a good Mechanist so explanations had to be strictly physical. He prevented Freud from asking psychological questions.
On the 15th October 1886, Freud read his paper on Male Hysteria before the Vienna Medical Society, which was widely condemned. Freud was subsequently led to the potential of hypnotism to "cure" hysteria and in 1895 he and a friend, Josef Breuer published Studies in Hysteria. Later, Freud's early theory of a sexual cause to hysteria disturbed Breuer and led to a split between them.
Freud slowly began to abandon hypnotism and between 1892-96, he used the pressure technique. It was the first time he used a couch. A hand was pressed on the patient's forehead and questions were asked. In 1896, Freud coined the term psychoanalysis. The pressure technique gave way and the free association technique was employed. Patients were to be free, without censoring or urging, to say whatever goes through their mind.
The only person willing to listen to Freud was Wilhelm Fliess (1858 - 1928), a Berlin nose-and-throat specialist. They met fairly often and exchanged many letters between 1893 and 1902. But Fliess had some pretty strange theories.
At 40 Freud had 6 children, a wife, parents and sisters to support. On the 23 October 1896 Freud's father died. It was during this period of crisis and self-analysis that Freud began writing The Interpretation of Dreams. This contained 2 revolutionary discoveries:
1. The solution to the meaning of dreams - generally that "all dreams represent the fulfilment of wishes."
2. The functioning of dreams provides systematic evidence of the unconscious.
In 1905 Freud published his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. His theory of sexuality made him world famous...for the wrong reasons. The hostility was understandable. Freud struck the third revolutionary blow to human pride.
The first had been in cosmology. As Freud said, Copernicus has shown that the earth (and therefore humanity) was not the centre of the universe.
The second was in biology thanks to Charles Darwin. Man was not God's creation but an evolved ape.
Freud's 3rd revolution was the psychology of the unconscious. Philosophers has always equated mind with consciousness. But Freud said something else. Only a small part of what is mental is conscious. The rest is unconscious, made up of inadmissible and involuntary ideas that motivate behaviour.
Freud attracted followers and pioneer psychoanalysts between 1902-08. These first practitioners formed the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. This included Otto Rank, Ernest Jones, Hanns Sachs, Alfred Adler, Sandor Ferenczi, Max Eitingon, Wilhelm Stekel, C.G. Jung and Karl Abraham. The first International Congress was held in Salzburg, April 1908.
By 1910 Freud gained international recognition. But now he faced struggles within the psychoanalytical movement itself. Disputes led to splits between Freud and his early followers, Adler, Stekel, Jung, Rank etc. The most famous split was with Jung.
In 1923 Freud proposed a new dynamic model of the mind. The Ego, the Id and the Super-ego and in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) Freud asked what the value of civilization was.
In April 1923, Freud was operated on for cancer of the jaw and palate. The first of 33 operations! The whole upper jaw and palate on the right side were removed. For the last 16 years Freud often suffered agonizing pain. His speech and hearing were affected and eating was difficult. Freud's daughter Anna was his nurse till his death.
He died on 23rd September, 1939.
Sigmund Freud Museum Vienna
Freud Photos & Memorabilia
Adapted from 'Introducing Freud' by Richard Appignanesi, published by Icon Books.