Sigmund Freud's name is infamous the world over. Musicians reference his works, writers analyze his theories and life, and modern psychologists look to him as a leader in the field of psychology and psychoanalysis. The field of psychology has changed in great leaps and bounds since Freud's time, thanks to his work. But who was Sigmund Freud, really?
Sigmund Freud was born as Sigismund Schlomo Freud in Freiberg, Moravia, in the Austrian Empire, on May 6, 1856. His parents, Jakob and Amalia, moved with Sigmund and his sister Anna to Leipzig and then to Vienna, where they settled down and had five more children. They were Rosa, Marie, Adolfine, Paula, and Alexander.
Young Sigmund entered the Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium high school in 1865. He was, naturally, an advanced student and graduated with honors in 1873. Freud was proficient in eight languages, a testament to the studious ability that would follow him throughout his life. At age 17, he entered the University of Vienna intending to study law. However, he soon entered the medical field.
While it was not his original desire, Freud graduated from the University of Vienna in 1881 with an MD and began his medical career at the Vienna General Hospital in 1882. Despite his personal feelings, he made great contributions to the field of medicine. Even before his graduation, his work on nervous tissue made major contributions to the later discovery of the neuron. It was during his work at the hospital that Freud first wrote about the healthful effects of cocaine in curing diseases. Nonetheless, he resigned from this post in 1886, marrying his wife Martha Bernays in the same year and later opening his own private practice.
Freud was an avid reader of literature, and some scholars have accredited the psychologist's avid reading of William Shakespeare for his theories on human thinking and behavior. His interest in philosophy, as well as pieces from Darwin and Eduard Von Hartmann also shaped his theories. He looked toward the works of others, especially philosophers during the beginning of his work, to fill in the gaps where he was unable to understand human thinking.
In 1885, Freud traveled with an idol of his, neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, while the neurologist was researching hypnosis. The experienced during these travels later moved Freud to open his private practice back home in 1886. While he studied hypnosis for a time, he later concluded that "free association," the action of talking freely about memories and emotions, was far more effective and assumed this form of analysis in his practice. He later named this practice and the ideas with it "psychoanalysis;" it proved fundamental in modern therapy techniques.
Before Sigmund's time, previous doctors believed that cerebral palsy was a result of labor injuries, mainly during birth. However, Freud proposed a theory that disagreed with his predecessors, stating that cerebral palsy was a condition that developed before birth and was a disease, not an injury. He was also the first to associate intellectual disabilities with the disease. Freud's work with cerebral palsy is just one example of his contributions to medicinal and disease research.
Perhaps what he is best known for, Freud's studies lent themselves to a strong belief that the mind could selectively forget memories and unpleasant experiences, a process he called "repression." He held the idea that these memories could then re-present themselves under the right circumstances. When he wrote his second paper on this idea, known as a defensive technique, he believed that this process is entirely subconscious and unintentional. Today, this idea is highly controversial but generally of interest to scientists and the general public alike.
The rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler's regime affected Freud's life personally. In 1933, when the Nazi party infiltrated Germany, Freud was still underestimating the power and influence they held. He was determined to remain in Vienna, but multiple incidents eventually forced him to seek asylum in London. Among these incidents was the visit of his friend and fellow neurologist, Ernest Jones, convincing him to flee, as well as the jarring arrest and interrogation of his daughter. Eventually, despite financial and legal problems, Freud, his wife, and his daughter were all able to join their other family members in London and Paris in June of 1938.
Freud developed the theories of the id, super-ego, and the ego, subsections of the psyche that control our words and actions. The id, he hypothesized, was unconscious and impulsive. The super-ego was thought to be a sort of blind moral compass, one that did not take into account any special circumstances. The ego was the balance between the two and most impactful on people's actions. This theory is widely accepted by psychologists and considered an important introduction in psychological studies.
Despite Sigmund Freud's intricate knowledge of the brain, he was subject to many weaknesses that he could not overcome. One of these was an addiction to cigars and tobacco, a habit that led to the development of cancer in his jaw. He had hidden the symptoms for some time, assisted by his doctor, until the pain was no longer bearable. His cancer was inoperable and, by his own choice, he was administered lethal doses of morphine, leading to his death on September 23, 1939. Some consider this a case of physician-assisted suicide. He was cremated on September 26th, and his ashes remain at the Golders Green Crematorium. His daughter, Anna Freud, continued his work after his death and became a world-renowned psychologist herself.