Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud, 1891.

Sigmund Freud, 1891.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London

Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis. He did not begin publishing the controversial ideas that made him famous until he was 40.

Freud, born in 1856 to a middle-class family, trained at the University of Vienna in medicine and research neurology. His first published work was on the sex organs of eels and the nervous systems of fish. The anti-Semitic climate of the time meant many Jewish scientists, including Freud, did not find a university position. Instead, Freud pursued clinical neurology in 1885 after spending a few months in Paris studying under Charcot. He supported his family by opening a private neurology practice which treated hysterical, neurasthenic and neurotic patients. Many were upper-class women.

The following decade saw him experiment with treatments including cocaine and hypnosis. He developed a new method which he called psychoanalysis, and his compelling and controversial ideas attracted followers inside and outside the medical community. Freud spent the rest of his life developing these ideas. He used them to shed light on jokes, ‘Freudian slips’, war and dying. When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Freud’s friends in England rushed him and his family to safety in Hampstead. He was dying of throat cancer, which he had battled for years. His doctor helped him commit assisted suicide in 1939.

The British poet W H Auden summed up Freud’s extraordinary influence: ‘If often he was wrong and, at times, absurd/ to us he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion.’