Freud was born in Freiberg, on May 6, 1856, and educated at the University of Vienna. When he was three years old his family, fleeing from the anti-Semitic riots then raging in Freiberg, moved to Leipzig. Shortly thereafter, the family settled in Vienna, where Freud remained for most of his life. Although Freud’s ambition from childhood had been a career in law, he decided to become a medical student shortly before he entered the University of Vienna in 1873.
Inspired by the scientific investigations of the German poet Goethe, Freud was driven by an intense desire to study natural science and to solve some of the challenging problems confronting contemporary scientists. In his third year at the university Freud began research work on the central nervous system in the physiological laboratory under the direction of the German physician Ernst Wilhelm von Brcke. Neurological research was so engrossing that Freud neglected the prescribed courses and as a result remained in medical school three years longer than was required normally to qualify as a physician.
In 1881, after completing a year of compulsory military service, he received his medical degree. Unwilling to give up his experimental work, however, he remained at the university as a demonstrator in the physiological laboratory. In 1883, at Brcke’s urging, he reluctantly abandoned theoretical research to gain practical experience. Freud spent three years at the General Hospital of Vienna, devoting himself successively to psychiatry, dermatology, and nervous diseases.
In 1885, following his appointment as a lecturer in neuropathology at the University of Vienna, he left his post at the hospital. Later the same year he was awarded a government grant enabling him to spend 19 weeks in Paris as a student of the French neurologist Jean Charcot. Charcot, who was the director of the clinic at the mental hospital, the Salptrire, was then treating nervous disorders by the use of hypnotic suggestion. Freud’s studies under Charcot, which centered largely on hysteria, influenced him greatly in channeling his interests to psychopathology.
In 1886 Freud established a private practice in Vienna specializing in nervous disease. He met with violent opposition from the Viennese medical profession because of his strong support of Charcot’s unorthodox views on hysteria and hypnotherapy. The resentment he incurred was to delay any acceptance of his subsequent findings on the origin of neurosis. Freud’s first published work, On Aphasia, appeared in 1891; it was a study of the neurological disorder in which the ability to pronounce words or to name common objects is lost as a result of organic brain disease.
His final work in neurology, an article, Infantile Cerebral Paralysis, was written in 1897 for an encyclopedia only at the insistence of the editor, since by this time Freud was occupied largely with psychological rather than physiological explanations for mental disorders. His subsequent writings were devoted entirely to that field, which he had named psychoanalysis in 1896. Freud’s new orientation was heralded by his collaborative work on hysteria with the Viennese physician Josef Breuer. The work was presented in 1893 in a preliminary paper and two years later in an expanded form under the title Studies on Hysteria.
In this work the symptoms of hysteria were ascribed to manifestations of undischarged emotional energy associated with forgotten psychic traumas. The therapeutic procedure involved the use of a hypnotic state in which the patient was led to recall and reenact the traumatic experience, thus discharging by catharsis the emotions causing the symptoms. The publication of this work marked the beginning of psychoanalytic theory formulated on the basis of clinical observations. During the period from 1895 to 1900 Freud developed many of the concepts that were later incorporated into psychoanalytic practice and doctrine.
Soon after publishing the studies on hysteria he abandoned the use of hypnosis as a cathartic procedure and substituted the investigation of the patient’s spontaneous flow of thoughts, called free association, to reveal the unconscious mental processes at the root of the neurotic disturbance. In his clinical observations Freud found evidence for the mental mechanisms of repression and resistance. He described repression as a device operating unconsciously to make the memory of painful or threatening events inaccessible to the conscious mind.
Resistance is defined as the unconscious defense against awareness of repressed experiences in order to avoid the resulting anxiety. He traced the operation of unconscious processes, using the free associations of the patient to guide him in the interpretation of dreams and slips of speech. Dream analysis led to his discoveries of infantile sexuality and of the so-called Oedipus complex, which constitutes the erotic attachment of the child for the parent of the opposite sex, together with hostile feelings toward the other parent.
In these years he also developed the theory of transference, the process by which emotional attitudes, established originally toward parental figures in childhood, are transferred in later life to others. The end of this period was marked by the appearance of Freud’s most important work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Here Freud analyzed many of his own dreams recorded in the 3-year period of his self-analysis, begun in 1897. This work expounds all the fundamental concepts underlying psychoanalytic technique and doctrine.
In 1902 Freud was appointed a full professor at the University of Vienna. This honor was granted not in recognition of his contributions but as a result of the efforts of a highly influential patient. The medical world still regarded his work with hostility, and his next writings, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904) and Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory (1905), only increased this antagonism. As a result Freud continued to work virtually alone in what he termed splendid isolation.
By 1906, however, a small number of pupils and followers had gathered around Freud, including the Austrian psychiatrist William Stekel and Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychologist Otto Rank, the American psychiatrist Abraham Brill, and the Swiss psychiatrists Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung. Other notable associates, who joined the circle in 1908, were the Hungarian psychiatrist Sndor Ferenczi and the British psychiatrist Ernest Jones. Increasing recognition of the psychoanalytic movement made possible the formation in 1910 of a worldwide organization called the International Psychoanalytic Association.
As the movement spread, gaining new adherents through Europe and the U. S. , Freud was troubled by the dissension that arose among members of his original circle. Most disturbing were the defections from the group of Adler and Jung, each of whom developed a different theoretical basis for disagreement with Freud’s emphasis on the sexual origin of neurosis. Freud met these setbacks by developing further his basic concepts and by elaborating his own views in many publications and lectures.
After the onset of World War I Freud devoted little time to clinical observation and concentrated on the application of his theories to the interpretation of religion, mythology, art, and literature. In 1923 he was stricken with cancer of the jaw, which necessitated constant, painful treatment in addition to many surgical operations. Despite his physical suffering he continued his literary activity for the next 16 years, writing mostly on cultural and philosophical problems. When the Germans occupied Austria in 1938, Freud, a Jew, was persuaded by friends to escape with his family to England. He died in London on September 23, 1939.
Freud created an entirely new approach to the understanding of human personality by his demonstration of the existence and force of the unconscious. In addition, he founded a new medical discipline and formulated basic therapeutic procedures that in modified form are applied widely in the present-day treatment of neuroses and psychoses. Although never accorded full recognition during his lifetime, Freud is generally acknowledged as one of the great creative minds of modern times. Among his other works are Totem and Taboo (1913), Ego and the Id (1923), New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), and Moses and Monotheism (1939).