11 Fascinating Facts About Sigmund Freud
Next to sheep, no one has done more for dreams than Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). While you may know him as the founder of psychoanalysis, you may not know as much about his work with therapy dogs, his Hollywood courtship, or his love affair with cocaine.
1. HE HAD A RARE BIRTH ANOMALY.
The first of eight children born to Jacob and Amalia Freud, newborn Sigmund arrived in 1856 with a curious aberration: A membrane known as a caul covered his head and face. Cauls are very unusual events, but harmlessly removed by attending physicians or midwives. Far from distressed, Amalia was overjoyed at the sight. She believed the folklore that says cauls herald the birth of a child destined for great accomplishments.
2. HE EXAMINED FROG BRAINS.
Freud’s early education and work was focused on neurology. After studying the sexual organs of the eel via dissection, he moved to comparing the brains of vertebrates and invertebrates. For six years, Freud dissected the brains of frogs, crayfish, and lampreys, describing the medulla oblongata and other then-oblique components of the brain and nervous system. He also made important contributions toward the discovery of the neuron.
3. HE EXPERIMENTED WITH HYPNOSIS.
After graduating from the University of Vienna, Freud began working at Vienna General Hospital and collaborating with fellow physician Josef Breuer. Breuer was an advocate of treating patients via hypnosis, which intrigued Freud. One of Breuer’s patients, known as “Anna O.,” seemed to recall unpleasant memories only when under the influence of hypnotic suggestion. Freud traveled to Paris to learn more from other physicians using hypnosis, but when he returned to Vienna in 1886 and opened his own practice, he began to step away from hypnosis—patients simply relaxing on his couch seemed to produce a similar recall effect.
4. HIS ETHICS COULD BE A LITTLE SHAKY.
Over time, Freud’s influence on psychiatry has been both celebrated and minimized. His critics argue that Freud was sometimes prone to manipulative behavior directed at his patients, as in the case of Horace Frink, an American psychoanalyst who submitted to Freud’s probing in 1921. Under Freud’s guidance, Frink divorced his wife and married Angelika Bijur—one of Frink's patients. This Match Game brand of psychiatry drew criticism after correspondence revealing Freud’s involvement in the pair was unearthed by Frink’s daughter in the 1970s.
5. HE HATED THE U.S.
Though Freud was feted in the United States for his provocative psychoanalytical theories, he disliked everything but the compliments. Traveling to America by steamship in 1909 with Carl Jung, Freud recoiled at the manners of his American hosts (who used his first name) and felt the culture as a whole was too preoccupied with money. Such was his dislike for the country that when the Nazis took over Vienna in 1938, Freud initially stuck around rather than accept a relative’s invitation to come seek shelter in Manhattan. (However, he willingly fled to London after Princess Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great-granddaughter, intervened.)
6. HOLLYWOOD WANTED HIS HELP.
Following the publication of several books on his theories, including 1899’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud’s notoriety grew exponentially. In 1925, MGM head Samuel Goldwyn declared him the “greatest love specialist in the world” and asked him to consult on scripts for several love stories from history, including Antony and Cleopatra. Freud had no interest in that film or any other. He did, however, once make time for an informal examination of actor Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s “Tramp” character, Freud wrote in 1931, was Chaplin channeling his own self “as he was in his early dismal youth.”
7. HE LIKED HIS COCAINE.
Before being stigmatized as a dangerous and addictive stimulant, cocaine was enjoyed at the turn of the century as a safe and practical way to stimulate activity. Freud found relief from bouts of sadness while on the drug and also appreciated its ability to provoke extended monologues about things normally tucked away in the recesses of his brain. He wrote four papers celebrating the drug’s effects and even used it on some of his patients. He quit the drug later in life, calling it a distraction.
8. HE HAD THERAPY DOGS.
Freud was using animal companions to soothe anxious patients long before it was common. He sometimes allowed his Chow-Chow, Jofi, to sit in with his patients during appointments and noticed that they became measurably more relaxed. When the idea of therapy dogs was explored further in the 1960s, researchers drew support from Freud’s writing about Jofi to help establish credibility for the approach.
9. HE HELPED SELL COUCHES.
Freud’s preference for patients to splay out on a couch, staring at the ceiling to help clear their mindS for revelatory thinking, became a standard of psychoanalytic practice. In the 1940s, the Imperial Leather Furniture Company of Queens manufactured couches that were specifically for the psychoanalytical field, lacking buttons or cushions that might distract nervous patients.
10. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR A NOBEL PRIZE 13 TIMES.
Between 1915 and 1938, Freud was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine 12 times and the Nobel in Literature once—yet was never awarded any of them. His critics charged that psychoanalysis was an unproven practice. Asked to endorse him for a prize, Albert Einstein begged off, citing uncertainty about Freud’s conclusions. Freud did receive the Goethe prize (given by the city of Frankfurt, Germany, in honor of the poet Goethe) in 1930: His daughter, Anna, traveled to Frankfurt, Germany to accept on his behalf, since Freud was ill with cancer.
11. THIEVES ONCE TRIED TO STEAL HIS ASHES.
Freud died by suicide in 1939, after a long and painful struggle with epithelioma. In 2014, his cremated ashes—housed in a 2300-year-old Greek urn given to him by Princess Marie Bonaparte—were nearly snatched by thieves at Golders Green Crematorium in London. The urn, which also contained the remains of his wife Martha, was damaged in the attempted theft. Crematorium employees then moved the urn from public display to a more secure location; it's unclear if the culprits were ever apprehended.