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Sigmund Freud
May 6, 1856 – September 23, 1939


Sigmund Freud
May 6, 1856 – September 23, 1939


6 May 1856 in the Moravian town of Příbor (German: Freiberg in Mähren), Austrian Empire, now part of the Czech Republic.

His father, Jacob Freud (1815–1896), was 41, a wool merchant, and had two children by a previous marriage.

His mother, Amalié (née Nathansohn), the third wife of Jacob, was 21.

Early Life

He was the first of eight children and, in accordance with tradition, his parents favored him over his siblings from the early stages of his childhood.

He was born with a caul, which the family accepted as a positive omen.

Despite their poverty, his parents ensured his schooling and education.

As a result of the Panic of 1857, his father lost his business, and the Freud family moved to Leipzig, before settling in Vienna.

In 1865, the nine-year-old Freud entered the Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium, a prominent high school.

He proved an outstanding pupil and graduated from the Matura in 1873 with honors.

He loved literature and was proficient in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

He read William Shakespeare in English throughout his life; Harold Bloom suggests that Freud's "vision of human psychology is derived, not altogether unconsciously, from his reading of the plays."


Freud went to the University of Vienna aged 17.

He had planned to study law, but instead joined the medical faculty at the University of Vienna where his studies included philosophy under Franz Brentano, physiology under Ernst Brücke and zoology under Darwinist Professor Karl Claus.

In 1876 Freud spent four weeks at Claus’s zoological research station in Trieste, dissecting hundreds of eels in an inconclusive search for their male reproductive organs.

He graduated with an MD in 1881, and the following year began his medical career in Theodor Meynert’s psychiatric clinic at the Vienna General Hospital.

Freud's parents were poor, but they ensured his education.

Interested in philosophy and law as a student, he moved instead into medicine, undertaking research into cerebral palsy, aphasia and microscopic neuroanatomy.

He went on to develop theories about the unconscious mind and the mechanism of repression, and established the field of verbal psychotherapy by creating psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst.

Though psychoanalysis has declined as a therapeutic practice, it has helped inspire the development of many other forms of psychotherapy, some diverging from Freud's original ideas and approach.

Freud postulated the existence of libido (an energy with which mental process and structures are invested), developed therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association (in which patients report their thoughts without reservation and make no attempt to concentrate while doing so), discovered transference (the process by which patients displace on to their analysts feelings based on their experience of earlier figures in their lives) and established its central role in the analytic process, and proposed that dreams help to preserve sleep by representing as fulfilled wishes that would otherwise awake the dreamer.

He was also a prolific essayist, drawing on psychoanalysis to contribute to the interpretation and critique of culture. Freud has been called one of the three masters of the "school of suspicion," alongside Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.


Freud resigned his hospital post and entered private practice in 1886, specializing in "nervous disorders".

The same year he married Martha Bernays the granddaughter of Isaac Bernays, a Chief Rabbi in Hamburg.

The couple had six children: Mathilde, born 1887; Jean-Martin, born 1889; Oliver, born 1891; Ernst, born 1892; Sophie, born 1893; and Anna, born 1895.


In October 1885, Freud went to Paris on a fellowship to study with Jean-Martin Charcot, a renowned neurologist who was conducting scientific research into hypnosis.

He was later to recall the experience of this stay as catalytic in turning him toward the practice of medical psychopathology and away from a less financially promising career in neurology research.

Charcot specialized in the study of hysteria and susceptibility to hypnosis, which he frequently demonstrated with patients on stage in front of an audience.

Once he had set up in private practice in 1886, Freud began using hypnosis in his clinical work.

He adopted the approach of his friend and collaborator, Josef Breuer, in a use of hypnosis which was different from the French methods he had studied in that it did not use suggestion.

The treatment of one particular patient of Breuer's proved to be transformative for Freud’s clinical practice.

Described as Anna O she was invited to talk about her symptoms whilst under hypnosis (she would coin the phrase “talking cure” for her treatment).

In the course of talking in this way these symptoms became reduced in severity as she retrieved memories of early traumatic incidents in her life.

This led Freud to eventually establish in the course of his clinical practice that a more consistent and effective pattern of symptom relief could be achieved, without recourse to hypnosis, by getting patients to talk freely about whatever ideas or memories occurred to them.

In addition to this procedure, which he called “free association”, Freud found that patient’s dreams could be fruitfully analysed to reveal the complex structuring of unconscious material and to demonstrate the psychic action of repression which underlay symptom formation.

By 1896 Freud had abandoned hypnosis and was using the term “psychoanalysis” to refer to his new clinical method and the theories on which it was based.

On the basis of his early clinical work Freud postulated that unconscious memories of sexual molestation in early childhood were a necessary precondition for the psychoneuroses (hysteria and obsessional neurosis), a formulation now known as Freud's seduction theory.

By 1897, however, Freud had abandoned this theory, now arguing that the repressed sexual thoughts and fantasies of early childhood were the key causative factors in neuroses, whether or not derived from real events in the child’s history.

This would lead to the emergence of Freud's new theory of infantile sexuality, and eventually to the Oedipus complex.

Feminine Critic

After the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in November 1899, interest in his theories began to grow, and a circle of supporters developed.

However, Freud often clashed with those supporters who criticized his theories, the most famous of whom was Jung. Part of the disagreement between them was due to Jung's interest in and commitment to spirituality and occultism, which Freud saw as unscientific.

Karen Horney, a pupil of Karl Abraham, criticized Freud's theory of femininity, leading him to defend it against her.

Horney's challenge to Freud's theories, along with that of Melanie Klein, produced the first psychoanalytic debate on femininity.

Ernest Jones, although usually an "ultra-orthodox" Freudian, sided with Horney and Klein.

Horney was Freud's most outspoken critic, although her and Jones's disagreement with Freud was over how to interpret penis envy rather than whether it existed.

Horney understood Freud's conception of the castration complex as a theory about the biological nature of women, one in which women were biologically castrated men, and rejected it as scientifically unsatisfying.

Jacques Lacan attempted to attract Freud's attention by sending him his thesis.

Freud replied to Lacan by sending him a postcard in January 1933; it read, "Thank you for sending your thesis."

Élisabeth Roudinesco comments that Freud, "hadn't even deigned to open the manuscript that the young stranger had commended to him, no doubt with great ardor."


In February 1923, Freud detected a leukoplakia, a benign growth associated with heavy smoking, on his mouth.

Freud initially kept this secret, but in April 1923 he informed Ernest Jones, telling him that the growth had been removed.

Freud consulted the dermatologist Maximilian Steiner, who advised him to quit smoking but lied about the growth's seriousness, minimizing its importance.

Freud later saw Felix Deutsch, who saw that the growth was cancerous; he identified it to Freud using the euphemism "a bad leukoplakia" instead of the technical diagnosis epithelioma.

Deutsch advised Freud to stop smoking and have the growth excised.

Freud was treated by Marcus Hajek, a rhinologist whose competence he had previously questioned.

Hajek performed an unnecessary cosmetic surgery in his clinic's outpatient department.

Freud bled during and after the operation, and may narrowly have escaped death.

Freud subsequently saw Deutsch again.

Deutsch saw that further surgery would be required, but refrained from telling Freud that he had cancer because he was worried that Freud might wish to commit suicide.


In 1930, Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize in recognition of his contributions to psychology and to German literary culture.

In January 1933, the Nazis took control of Germany, and Freud's books were prominent among those they burned and destroyed.

Freud quipped: “What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books.”

Freud continued to maintain his optimistic underestimation of the growing Nazi threat and remained determined to stay in Vienna, even following the Anschluss of 13 March 1938 in which Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and the outbursts of violent anti-Semitism that ensued.

Ernest Jones, the then president of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA), flew into Vienna from London via Prague on 15 March determined to get Freud to change his mind and seek exile in Britain.

This prospect and the shock of the detention and interrogation of Anna Freud by the Gestapo finally convinced Freud it was time to leave Vienna.

Jones left for London the following week with a list provided by Freud of the party of émigrés for whom immigration permits would be required.

Back in London Jones used his personal acquaintance with the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare to expedite the granting of permits.

There were seventeen in all and work permits were provided where relevant.
Jones also used his influence in scientific circles, persuading the president of the Royal Society, Sir William Bragg, to write to the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, requesting to good effect that diplomatic pressure be applied in Berlin and Vienna on Freud’s behalf.

Freud also had support from American diplomats, notably his ex-patient and American ambassador to France, William Bullitt.

The departure from Vienna began in stages throughout April and May 1938. Freud's grandson Ernst Halberstadt, and

Freud’s son Martin’s wife and children left for Paris in April.

Freud’s sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, left for London on 5 May, Martin Freud the following week and Freud’s daughter Mathilde and her husband, Robert Hollitscher, on 24 May.

By the end of the month, arrangements for Freud’s own departure for London had become stalled, mired in a legally tortuous and financially extortionate process of negotiation with the Nazi authorities.

However, the Nazi appointed Kommissar put in charge of his assets and those of the IPA proved to be sympathetic to Freud's plight.

Anton Sauerwald had studied chemistry at Vienna University under Professor Josef Herzig, an old friend of Freud's, and evidently retained, notwithstanding his Nazi Party allegiance, a respect for Freud's professional standing.

Expected to disclose details of all Freud’s bank accounts to his superiors and to follow their instructions to destroy the historic library of books housed in the offices of the IPA, in the event Sauerwald did neither.

He removed evidence of Freud’s foreign bank accounts to his own safe-keeping and arranged the storage of the books in the Austrian National Library where they remained until the end of the war.


By mid-September 1939, Freud’s cancer of the oral cavity was causing him increasingly severe pain and had been declared to be inoperable.

After reading Honoré de Balzac's La Peau de chagrin in a single sitting, Freud turned to his doctor, friend and fellow refugee, Max Schur, reminding him that they had previously discussed the terminal stages of his illness: “Schur, you remember our ‘contract’ not to leave me in the lurch when the time had come.

Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense.”

When Schur replied that he had not forgotten, Freud said, “I thank you.” and then “Talk it over with Anna, and if she thinks it’s right, then make an end of it.”

Anna Freud wanted to postpone her father’s death, but Schur convinced her it was pointless to keep him alive, and on 21 and 22 September administered doses of morphine that resulted in Freud's death on 23 September 1939.


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