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Sigmund Freud

The Father of Psychoanalysis

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

Picture of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud smoking a cigar.

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud smoking a cigar. (circa 1920)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Sigmund Freud?

Sigmund Freud is best known as the creator of the therapeutic technique known as psychoanalysis. The Austrian-born psychiatrist greatly contributed to the understanding of human psychology in areas such as the unconscious mind, sexuality, and dream interpretation. He was also among the first to recognize the significance of emotional events that occur in childhood. Although many of his theories have since fallen out of favor, Freud profoundly influenced psychiatric practice in the twentieth century.

Dates: May 6, 1856 -- September 23, 1939

Also Known As: Sigismund Schlomo Freud; "Father of Psychoanalysis"

Famous Quote: "The ego is not master in its own house."

Childhood in Austria-Hungary

Sigismund Freud (later know as Sigmund) was born on May 6, 1856 in the town of Frieberg in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (present day Czech Republic). He was the first child of Jacob and Amalia Freud and would be followed by two brothers and four sisters. It was the second marriage for Jacob, who had two adult sons from a previous wife. Jacob set up business as a wool merchant, but struggled to earn enough money to take care of his growing family. Jacob and Amalia raised their family as culturally Jewish, but were not especially religious in practice.

The family moved to Vienna in 1859, taking up residence in the only place they could afford -- the Leopoldstadt slum. Jacob and Amalia, however, had reason to hope for a better future for their children. Reforms enacted by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1849 had officially abolished discrimination against Jews, lifting restrictions previously placed upon them. Although anti-Semitism still existed, Jews were, by law, free to enjoy the privileges of full citizenship, such as opening a business, entering a profession, and owning real estate. Unfortunately, Jacob was not a successful businessman and the Freuds were forced to live in a shabby, one-room apartment for several years.

Young Freud began school at the age of nine and quickly rose to the head of the class. He became a voracious reader and mastered several languages. Freud began to record his dreams in a notebook as an adolescent, displaying a fascination for what would later become a key element of his theories.

Following graduation from high school, Freud enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1873 to study zoology. Between his course work and lab research, he would remain at the university for nine years.

Attending University and Finding Love

As his mother's undisputed favorite, Freud enjoyed privileges that his siblings did not. He was given his own room at home (they now lived in a larger apartment), while the others shared bedrooms. The younger children had to maintain quiet in the house so that "Sigi" (as his mother called him) could concentrate on his studies. Freud changed his first name to Sigmund in 1878.

Early in his college years, Freud decided to pursue medicine, although he didn't envision himself caring for patients in a traditional sense. He was fascinated by bacteriology, the new branch of science whose focus was the study of organisms and the diseases they caused. Freud became a lab assistant to one of his professors, performing research on the nervous systems of lower animals such as fish and eels.

After completing his medical degree in 1881, Freud began a three-year internship at a Vienna hospital, while continuing to work at the university on research projects. While Freud gained satisfaction from his painstaking work at the microscope, he realized that there was little money in research. He knew he must find a well-paying job and soon found himself more motivated than ever to do so.

In 1882, Freud met Martha Bernays, a friend of his sister. The two were immediately attracted to one another and became engaged within months of meeting. The engagement lasted four years, as Freud (still living in his parents' home) worked to make enough money to be able to marry and support Martha.

Freud the Researcher

Intrigued by the theories on brain function that were emerging during the late 19th century, Freud opted to specialize in neurology. Many neurologists of that era sought to find an anatomical cause for mental illness within the brain. Freud also sought that proof in his research, which involved the dissection and study of brains. He became knowledgeable enough to give lectures on brain anatomy to other physicians.

Freud eventually found a position at a private children's hospital in Vienna. In addition to studying childhood diseases, he developed a special interest in patients with mental and emotional disorders. Freud was disturbed by the current methods used to treat the mentally ill, such as long-term incarceration, hydrotherapy (spraying patients with a hose), and the dangerous (and poorly-understood) application of electric shock. He aspired to find a better, more humane method.

One of Freud's early experiments did little to help his professional reputation. In 1884, Freud published a paper detailing his experimentation with cocaine as a remedy for mental and physical ailments. He sang the praises of the drug, which he administered to himself as a cure for headaches and anxiety. Freud shelved the study after numerous cases of addiction were reported by those using the drug medicinally.

Hysteria and Hypnosis

In 1885, Freud traveled to Paris, having received a grant to study with pioneering neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. The French physician had recently resurrected the use of hypnosis, made popular a century earlier by Dr. Franz Mesmer. Charcot specialized in the treatment of patients with "hysteria," the catch-all name for an ailment with various symptoms, ranging from depression to seizures and paralysis, which mainly affected women.

Charcot believed that most cases of hysteria originated in the patient's mind and should be treated as such. He held public demonstrations, during which he would hypnotize patients (placing them into a trance) and induce their symptoms, one at a time, then remove them by suggestion. Although some observers (especially those in the medical community) viewed it with suspicion, hypnosis did seem to work on some patients.

Freud was greatly influenced by Charcot's method, which illustrated the powerful role that words could play in the treatment of mental illness. He also came to adopt the belief that some physical ailments might originate in the mind, rather than in the body alone.

Private Practice and "Anna O"

Returning to Vienna in February 1886, Freud opened a private practice as a specialist in the treatment of "nervous diseases." As his practice grew, he finally earned enough money to marry Martha Bernays in September 1886. The couple moved into an apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in the heart of Vienna. Their first child, Mathilde, was born in 1887, followed by three sons and two daughters over the next eight years.

Freud began to receive referrals from other physicians to treat their most challenging patients -- "hysterics" who did not improve with treatment. Freud used hypnosis with these patients and encouraged them to talk about past events in their lives. He dutifully wrote down all that he learned from them -- traumatic memories, as well as their dreams and fantasies.

One of Freud's most important mentors during this time was Viennese physician Josef Breuer. Through Breuer, Freud learned about a patient whose case had an enormous influence upon Freud and the development of his theories. "Anna O" (real name Bertha Pappenheim) was the pseudonym of one of Breuer's hysteria patients who had proved especially difficult to treat. She suffered from numerous physical complaints, including arm paralysis, dizziness, and temporary deafness.

Breuer treated Anna by using what the patient herself called "the talking cure." She and Breuer were able to trace a particular symptom back to an actual event in her life that might have triggered it. In talking about the experience, Anna found that she felt a sense of relief, leading to a diminishment -- or even the disappearance of -- a symptom. Thus, Anna O became the first patient to have undergone "psychoanalysis," a term coined by Freud himself.

The Unconscious

Inspired by the case of Anna O, Freud incorporated the talking cure into his own practice. Before long, he did away with the hypnosis aspect, focusing instead upon listening to his patients and asking them questions. Later, he asked fewer questions, allowing his patients to talk about whatever came to mind, a method known as free association. As always, Freud kept meticulous notes on everything his patients said, referring to such documentation as a case study. He considered this his scientific data.

As Freud gained experience as a psychoanalyst, he developed a concept of the human mind as an iceberg, noting that a major portion of the mind -- the part that lacked awareness -- existed under the surface of the water. He referred to this as the “unconscious.” Other early psychologists of the day held a similar belief, but Freud was the first to attempt to systematically study the unconscious in a scientific way.

Freud's theory -- that humans are not aware of all of their own thoughts, and might often act upon unconscious motives -- was considered a radical one in its time. His ideas were not well-received by other physicians because he could not unequivocally prove them. In an effort to explain his theories, Freud co-authored Studies in Hysteria with Breuer in 1895. The book did not sell well, but Freud was undeterred. He was certain that he had uncovered a great secret about the human mind.

(Many people now commonly use the term "Freudian slip" to refer to a verbal mistake that potentially reveals an unconscious thought or belief.)

The Analyst's Couch

Freud conducted his hour-long psychoanalytic sessions in a separate apartment located in his family's apartment building at Berggasse 19 (now a museum). It was his office for nearly half a century. The cluttered room was filled with books, paintings, and small sculptures. At its center was a horsehair sofa, upon which Freud's patients reclined while they talked to the doctor, who sat in a chair, out of view. (Freud believed that his patients would speak more freely if they were not looking directly at him.) He maintained a neutrality, never passing judgment or offering suggestions.

The main goal of therapy, Freud believed, was to bring the patient's repressed thoughts and memories to a conscious level, where they could be acknowledged and addressed. For many of his patients, the treatment was a success; thus inspiring them to refer their friends to Freud. As his reputation grew by word of mouth, Freud was able to charge more for his sessions. He worked up to 16 hours a day as his list of clientele expanded.

Self-Analysis and the Oedipus Complex

After the 1896 death of his 80-year-old father, Freud felt compelled to learn more about his own psyche. He decided to psychoanalyze himself, setting aside a portion of each day to examine his own memories and dreams, beginning with his early childhood.

During these sessions, Freud developed his theory of the Oedipal complex (named for the Greek tragedy), in which he proposed that all young boys are attracted to their mothers and view their fathers as rivals. As a normal child matured, he would grow away from his mother. Freud described a similar scenario for fathers and daughters, calling it the Electra complex (also from Greek mythology).

Freud also came up with the controversial concept of "penis envy," in which he touted the male gender as the ideal. He believed that every girl harbored a deep wish to be a male. Only when a girl renounced her wish to be a male (and her attraction to her father) could she identify with the female gender. Many subsequent psychoanalysts rejected that notion.

The Interpretation of Dreams

Freud's fascination with dreams was also stimulated during his self-analysis. Convinced that dreams shed light upon unconscious feelings and desires, Freud began an analysis of his own dreams and those of his family and patients. He determined that dreams were an expression of repressed wishes and thus could be analyzed in terms of their symbolism.

Freud published the groundbreaking study The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. Although he received some favorable reviews, Freud was disappointed by sluggish sales and the overall tepid response to the book. However, as Freud became better known, several more editions had to be printed to keep up with popular demand.

Freud soon gained a small following of students of psychology, which included Carl Jung, among others who later became prominent. The group of men met weekly for discussions at Freud's apartment. As they grew in number and influence, the men came to call themselves the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. The Society held the first international psychoanalytic conference in 1908.

Over the years, Freud, who had a tendency to be unyielding and combative, eventually broke off communication with nearly all of the men.

Freud and Jung

Freud maintained a close relationship with Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who embraced many of Freud's theories. When Freud was invited to speak at Clark University in Massachusetts in 1909, he asked Jung to accompany him. Unfortunately, their relationship suffered from the stresses of the trip. Freud did not acclimate well to being in an unfamiliar environment and became moody and difficult.

Nonetheless, Freud's speech at Clark was quite successful. He impressed several prominent American physicians, convincing them of the merits of psychoanalysis. Freud's thorough, well-written case studies, with compelling titles such as "The Rat Boy," also received praise. Freud's fame grew exponentially following his trip to the United States. At 53, he felt that his work was finally receiving the attention it deserved. Freud's methods, once considered highly unconventional, were now deemed accepted practice.

Carl Jung, however, increasingly questioned Freud's ideas. Jung didn't agree that all mental illness originated in childhood trauma, nor did he believe that a mother was an object of her son's desire. Yet Freud resisted any suggestion that he might be wrong. By 1913, the men had severed all ties with one another. Jung developed his own theories and became a highly influential psychologist in his own right.

Id, Ego, and Superego

Following the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, thus drawing several other nations into the conflict which became World War I. Freud initially supported the war and proudly sent his three sons off to fight, but as death tolls rose, he became increasingly uneasy and fearful.

Although the war had effectively put an end to the further development of psychoanalytic theory, Freud managed to stay busy and productive. He revised his previous concept of the structure of the human mind. Freud now proposed that the mind comprised three parts: the Id (the unconscious, impulsive portion that deals with urges and instinct), the Ego (the practical and rational decision-maker), and the Superego (an internal voice that determined right from wrong, a conscience of sorts). During the war, Freud actually used this three-part theory to examine entire countries.

At the end of World War I, Freud's psychoanalytic theory unexpectedly gained a wider following. Many veterans returned from battle with emotional problems. Initially termed "shell shock," the condition resulted from psychological trauma experienced on the battlefield. Desperate to help these men, doctors employed Freud's talk therapy, encouraging the soldiers to describe their experiences. The therapy seemed to help in many instances, creating a renewed respect for Sigmund Freud.

Later Years

By the 1920s, Freud had become internationally known as an influential scholar and practitioner. He was proud of his youngest daughter, Anna, his greatest disciple, who distinguished herself as the founder of child psychoanalysis.

In 1923, Freud was diagnosed with oral cancer, the consequence of decades of smoking cigars. He endured more than 30 surgeries, including the removal of part of his jaw. Although he suffered a great deal of pain, Freud refused to take pain killers, fearing that they might cloud his thinking. He continued to write, focusing more on his own philosophies and musings rather than the topic of psychology.

As Adolf Hitler gained control throughout Europe in the mid-1930s, those Jews who were able to get out began to leave. Freud's friends tried to convince him to leave Vienna, but he resisted even when the Nazis occupied Austria. When the Gestapo briefly took Anna into custody, Freud finally realized it was no longer safe to stay. He was able to obtain exit visas for himself and his immediate family, and they fled to London in 1938. Sadly, four of Freud's sisters died in Nazi concentration camps.

Freud lived only a year and a half after moving to London. As the cancer advanced into his face, Freud could no longer tolerate the pain. With the help of a physician friend, Freud was given an intentional overdose of morphine and died on September 23, 1939 at the age of 83.

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