04 February, 2009
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian psychiatrist who founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. Freud is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind and the defense mechanism of repression and for creating the clinical practice of psychoanalysis for curing psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. Freud is also renowned for his redefinition of sexual desire as the primary motivational energy of human life, as well as his therapeutic techniques, including the use of free association, his theory of transference in the therapeutic relationship, and the interpretation of dreams as sources of insight into unconscious desires. He was also an early neurological researcher into cerebral palsy. While of significant historical interest, many of Freud's ideas have fallen out of favor or have been modified by Neo-Freudians, although in the past ten years advances in the field of neurology have shown evidence for many of his theories. In clinical practice, Freud's methods and ideas remain important in psychodynamic approaches. In the academy, his ideas continue to be influential in the humanities and some social sciences.
Sigmund Freud was born on 6 May 1856 to Galician Jewish parents in Příbor (German: Freiberg in Mähren), Moravia, Austrian Empire, now Czech Republic. His father Jakob was 41, a wool merchant, and had two children by a previous marriage. His mother Amalié, the third wife of Jakob, was 21. He was the first of their eight children and owing to his precocious intellect, his parents favored him over his siblings from the early stages of his childhood; and despite their poverty, they sacrificed everything to give him a proper education. Due to the economic crisis of 1857, Freud's father lost his business, and the family moved first to Leipzig before settling in Vienna. In 1865, Sigmund entered the Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium, a prominent high school. Freud was an outstanding pupil and graduated the Matura in 1873 with honors.
After planning to study law, Freud joined the medical faculty at University of Vienna to study under Darwinist Prof, Karl Claus. At that time, eel life history was still unknown, and due to their mysterious origins and migrations, a racist association was often made between eels and Jews and Gypsies. In search for their male sex organs, Freud spent four weeks at the Austrian zoological research station in Trieste, dissecting hundreds of eels without finding more than his predecessors such as Simon von Syrski. In 1876, he published his first paper about "the testicles of eels" in the "Mitteilungen der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften", conceding that he could not solve the matter either. Frustrated by the lack of success that would have gained him fame, Freud chose to change his course of study. Biographers like Siegfried Bernfeld wonder if and how this early episode was significant for his later work regarding hidden sexuality and frustrations.
In 1874, the concept of "psychodynamics" was proposed with the publication of Lectures on Physiology by German physiologist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke who, in coordination with physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the formulators of the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy), supposed that all living organisms are energy-systems also governed by this principle. During this year, at the University of Vienna, Brücke served as supervisor for first-year medical student Sigmund Freud who adopted this new "dynamic" physiology. In his Lectures on Physiology, Brücke set forth the radical view that the living organism is a dynamic system to which the laws of chemistry and physics apply. This was the starting point for Freud's dynamic psychology of the mind and its relation to the unconscious. The origins of Freud’s basic model, based on the fundamentals of chemistry and physics, according to John Bowlby, stems from Brücke, Meynert, Breuer, Helmholtz, and Herbart. In 1879, Freud interrupted his studies to complete his one year of obligatory military service, and in 1881 he received his Dr. med. (M.D.) with the thesis Über das Rückenmark niederer Fischarten ("on the spinal cord of lower fish species").
In October 1885 Freud went to Paris on a traveling fellowship to study with Europe's most renowned neurologist, Jean Martin Charcot. He was later to remember 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 research neurology. Charcot specialised in the study of hysteria and its susceptibility to hypnosis which he frequently demonstrated with patients on stage in front of an audience. Freud later turned away from hypnosis as a potential cure, favouring free association and dream analysis. Charcot himself questioned his own work on hysteria towards the end of his life.
After opening his own medical practice, specializing in neurology, Freud married Martha Bernays in 1886. Her father Berman was the son of Isaac Bernays, chief rabbi in Hamburg. After experimenting with hypnosis on his neurotic patients, Freud abandoned this form of treatment as it proved ineffective for many, in favor of a treatment where the patient talked through his or her problems. This came to be known as the "talking cure", as the ultimate goal of this talking was to locate and release powerful emotional energy that had initially been rejected, and imprisoned in the unconscious mind. Freud called this denial of emotions "repression", and he believed that it was often damaging to the normal functioning of the psyche, and could also retard physical functioning as well, which he described as "psychosomatic" symptoms. (The term "talking cure" was initially coined by the patient Anna O. who was treated by Freud's colleague Josef Breuer.) The "talking cure" is widely seen as the basis of psychoanalysis. Carl Jung initiated the rumor that a romantic relationship may have developed between Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, who had moved into Freud's apartment at 19 Berggasse in 1896.
In his 40s, Freud "had numerous psychosomatic disorders as well as exaggerated fears of dying and other phobias". During this time Freud was involved in the task of exploring his own dreams, memories, and the dynamics of his personality development. During this self-analysis, he came to realize the hostility he felt towards his father (Jacob Freud), who had died in 1896, and "he also recalled his childhood sexual feelings for his mother (Amalia Freud), who was attractive, warm, and protective" considers this time of emotional difficulty to be the most creative time in Freud's life.
After the publication of Freud's books in 1900 and 1902, interest in his theories began to grow, and a circle of supporters developed in the following period. Freud often chose to disregard the criticisms of those who were skeptical of his theories, however, which earned him the animosity of a number of individuals, the most famous being Carl Jung, who originally supported Freud's ideas. Part of the reason for their fall out was due to Jung's growing commitment to religion and mysticism, which conflicted with Freud's atheism.
In 1930, Freud received the Goethe Prize in appreciation of his contribution to psychology and to German literary culture. Three years later the Nazis took control of Germany and Freud's books featured prominently among those burned and destroyed by the Nazis. In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss. This led to violent outbursts of anti-Semitism in Vienna, and Freud and his family received visits from the Gestapo. Freud decided to go into exile "to die in freedom". He and his family left Vienna in June 1938 and moved to Hampstead, London.
A heavy cigar smoker, Freud endured more than 30 operations during his life due to oral cancer. In September 1939 he prevailed on his doctor and friend Max Schur to assist him in suicide. After reading Balzac's La Peau de chagrin in a single sitting he said, "My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk. You promised me then not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense any more." Schur administered three doses of morphine over many hours that resulted in Freud's death on 23 September 1939. Three days after his death, Freud's body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in England during a service attended by Austrian refugees, including the author Stefan Zweig. His ashes were later placed in the crematorium's columbarium. They rest in an ancient Greek urn which Freud had received as a present from Marie Bonaparte and which he had kept in his study in Vienna for many years.