A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Sigmund Freud
1856 - 1939

Sigmund Freud was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1856. His father was a small time merchant, and his father's second wife was Freud's mother. Freud had two half-brothers some 20 years older than himself. His family moved to Vienna when he was four years old, and though he often claimed he hated the city, he lived there until it was occupied by Germany in 1938. Freud's family background was Jewish, though his father was a freethinker and Freud himself an avowed atheist.

Freud was a good student, and very ambitious. Medicine and law were the professions then open to Jewish men, and in 1873 he entered the University of Vienna medical school. He was interested in science above all; the idea of practicing medicine was slightly repugnant to him. He hoped to go into neurophysiological research, but pure research was hard to manage in those days unless you were independently wealthy. Freud was engaged and needed to be able to support a family before he could marry, and so he determined to go into private practice with a specialty in neurology.

During his training he befriended Josef Breuer, another physician and physiologist. They often discussed medical cases together and one of Breuer's would have a lasting effect on Freud. Known as Anna O., this patient was a young woman suffering from what was then called hysteria. She had temporary paralysis, could not speak her native German but could speak French and English, couldn't drink water even when thirsty, and so on. Breuer discovered that if he hypnotized her, she would talk of things she did not remember in the conscious state, and afterwards her symptoms were relieved -- thus it was called "the talking cure." Freud went to Paris for further study under Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist known all over Europe for his studies of hysterics and use of hypnosis.

In 1886, Freud returned to Vienna, opened a private practice specializing in nervous and brain disorders, and married. He tried hypnotism with his hysteric and neurotic patients, but gradually discarded the practice. He found he could get patients to talk just by putting them in a relaxing position (the couch) and encouraging them to say whatever came into their heads (free association). He could then analyze what they had remembered or expressed and determine what traumatic events in their past had caused their current suffering.

In 1900, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, and introduced the wider public to the notion of the unconscious mind. In 1901, he published The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which he theorized that forgetfulness or slips of the tongue (now called "Freudian slips") were not accidental at all, but it was the "dynamic unconscious" revealing something meaningful. To many, these ideas seemed to be making science out of a folk art, but Freud had still more controversial ideas to come. He concluded that the sexual drive was the most powerful shaper of a person's psychology, and that sexuality was present even in infants. He shocked society when he published these ideas in 1905. His most well-known theory is that of the "Oedipus complex" -- that in children (boys, that is) there is a sexual attraction towards the mother and a sense of jealousy to the point of hatred of the father. He later developed a parallel theory for girls.

In 1902, Freud was appointed professor at the University of Vienna and began to gather a devoted following. By 1906, there were 17 disciples, and soon more, who formed a Psychoanalytic Society. Other such groups emerged in other cities. But Freud's group fell victim to political infighting, and some of his closest adherents (such as Alfred Adler and Carl Jung) split from the group with bitter feelings.

Freud continued working, developing his theories, and writing -- producing a stunning volume of work. In 1909 he made his first international presentation of his theories, at Clark University in Massachusetts. His name was becoming a household word. In 1923, he was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw, a result of years of cigar smoking. He was 67. He would have 30 operations over the next 16 years to treat the progressive disease. Meanwhile, a political cancer was growing in Europe. By 1933, the Nazi party had risen to power in Germany. They burned books by Freud, among others. They took over Austria in 1938. Freud's passport was confiscated, but his fame and the influence of foreigners persuaded the occupying forces to let him go, and he and his wife fled to England. He died there in September, 1939.

Supporters have praised Freud rapturously and critics have called him everything from a con-man to a dirty-minded pansexualist . . . but no one disagrees that he has been one of the most influential scientists of the century. Not only did he influence the professional practice of psychology and psychiatry, but he changed the way people (in Western cultures) view themselves and think about their lives.

"Anatomy is destiny."

"Analogies decide nothing, it is true, but they can make one feel more at home."

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