A Brief History of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis. He is regarded as one of the most influential and controversial minds of the 20th century.

Sigismund (later changed to Sigmund) Freud was born on 6 May 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia (now Pribor in the Czech Republic). The family moved to Leipzig and then settled in Vienna, where he was educated. Freud’s family were Jewish but he was himself non-practising.

He studied medicine in Vienna and after graduating studied the effects of a new drug (cocaine):

  • 1885 he worked with Paul Charcot in Paris. Influenced by his work with hypnotherapy
  • 1886 he returned to Vienna and worked with Josef Breuer in treating hysteria (common in women the Victorian era) through the recall of painful experiences
  • In 1895 he wrote ‘Studies in Hysteria’ with Breuer.

Why Study Freud?

Sigmund Freud is one of the founding fathers of psychology and one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. Although Freud’s theories have since fallen in terms of public opinion but his impact on psychology and psychiatry cannot be ignored.

His theories radically altered our understanding of mind and behaviour and are very comprehensive; as he tries to explain everything that humans are and do.

He laid the foundations for all subsequent personality theories thereafter and popularised therapy based on the ideas that you could help people just by talking (catharsis).

‘The Interpretation of Dreams’

Sigmund Freud developed the theory that humans have an unconscious in which sexual and aggressive impulses are in perpetual conflict for supremacy with the defences against them. In 1897, he began an intensive analysis of himself. In 1900, his major work ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ was published in which Freud analysed dreams in terms of unconscious desires and experiences.

In 1902, Sigmund Freud was appointed Professor of Neuropathology at the University of Vienna, a post he held until 1938. Although the medical establishment disagreed with many of his theories, a group of pupils and followers began to gather around Freud. In 1910, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded with Carl Jung, a close associate of Freud’s, as the president. Jung later broke with Freud and developed his own theories.

‘The Ego and the Id’

After World War One, Sigmund Freud spent less time in clinical observation and concentrated on the application of his theories to history, art, literature and anthropology. In 1923, he published ‘The Ego and the Id’, which suggested a new structural model of the mind, divided into the ‘id, the ‘ego’ and the ‘superego’.

In 1933, the Nazis publicly burnt a number of Freud’s books. In 1938, shortly after the Nazis annexed Austria, Freud left Vienna for London with his wife and daughter Anna.

He was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw in 1923, and underwent more than 30 operations. He died of cancer on 23 September 1939.

Read next: ‘Freud: The id, ego and superego

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