Sigmund Freud biography

Sigmund_Freud Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) – Austrian neurologist who is credited with developing the field of psychoanalysis. He is considered one of the most influential thinkers of the Twentieth Century, even though many of his ideas have been challenged in recent decades.

Freud was born 6 May 1856  in Freiberg in Moravia, Austrian Empire
(now Příbor, Czech Republic) to Hasidic Jewish parents.

Freud was brought up in Leipzig and Vienna, where he attended a prominent school. Freud proved an outstanding student, excelling in languages, and English literature. He developed a love for reading Shakespeare in original English, something he kept up throughout his life.

At the age of 17, Freud joined the medical facility at the University of Vienna to study a range of subjects, such as philosophy, physiology and zoology.

Freud graduated in 1881 and began working at the Vienna General Hospital. He worked in various departments, such as the psychiatric clinic and also combined medical practice with research work – such as an influential paper on aphasia (1891) and the effects of cocaine (1894). Freud was initially an advocate of using cocaine for pain relief, though he later stopped advocating its use – as its dangers became increasingly known. Freud was also an early researcher in the field of cerebral palsy.

While working in different medical fields, Freud continued his own independent reading. He was influenced by Charles Darwin’s relatively new theory of evolution. He also read extensively Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. Other influences on Freud included works on the existence of the subconscious, by writers such as Brentano and Theodor Lipps. Freud also studied the practice of hypnosis, as developed by Jean-Martin Charcot.

In 1886, Freud left his hospital post and set up his own private clinic specialising in nervous disorders. An important aspect of Freud’s approach was to encourage patients to share their innermost thoughts and feelings, which often lied buried in their subconscious. Initially, he used the process of hypnosis, but later found he could just ask people to talk about their experiences.

Freud hoped that by bringing the unconscious thoughts and feelings to the surface, patients would be able to let go of repetitive negative emotions and feelings. Another technique he pioneered was ‘transference’ where patients would project negative feelings of other people on to the psychoanalyst. Freud himself wrote about the personal cost of delving into the darker aspects of the subconscious

“No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human beast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed.”

Freud – Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905)

Freud also placed an important stress on getting his patients to write down their dreams and use this in the analysis. Increasingly he used the term ‘psychoanalysis’ to explain his methods.

In developing his outlook on psychoanalysis, he also made significant use of his own dreams, depression and feelings from childhood. To Freud, his relationship with his mother was of particular importance – as a child Freud felt he was competing for his mother’s affections between his siblings.

Oedipus Complex

Another key element of Freud’s work was the importance of early sexual experiences of children. He developed a theory of the Oedipus Complex that children have an unconscious and repressed desire to have sexual relations with the parent of the opposite sex. Freud felt that the successful resolution of this resolution was important for developing a mature identity and sexuality.


In 1899, he published ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ in which, he criticised existing theory of dreams, placing greater emphasis on dreams as unfulfilled wish-fulfilments. He later applied his theories in a more practical setting, which generated a larger readership among the general public. Important works include The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901),  Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, published in 1905.


Group Photo 1909. Freud centre front

From the early 1900s, Freud’s new theories became increasingly influential – attracting a range of followers, who were interested in the new theory of psychology. Other important members of this group included Wilhelm Stekel – a physician, Alfred Adler, Max Kahane, and Rudolf Reitler. All five members were Jewish. The group discussed new papers, but it was Freud who was considered the intellectual leader of the burgeoning psychoanalysis movement. By 1908, this group had become larger and was formalised as the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.

In 1909 and 1910, Freud’s ideas were increasingly being spread to the English speaking work. With Carl Jung, Freud visited New York in 1909. In an apocryphal remark – Freud is rumoured to have remarked to Jung on arriving in New York “They don’t realize that we are bringing them the plague.”

The trip was a success with Freud awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Clark University, Ma. This led to considerable media interest and the later formation of the American Psychoanalytic Association in 1911.

However, as the movement grew, there were increasing philosophical splits, with key members taking different approaches. Carl Jung left the movement in 1912, preferring to pursue an ‘analytical psychology’. After the First World War, Adler and Rank both left for different reasons.


Freud 1922 (front left

However, Freud and the field of psychoanalysis continued to grow in prominence. In 1930 Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize for his contributions to German literature and psychology.

After the mid-1920s, Freud also increasingly tried to apply his theories in other fields such as his history, art, literature and anthropology. Freud is often considered to take a pessimistic view of human nature. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud declared:

“I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation…”

Nazi Persecution

In 1933, the Nazi’s came to power in Germany, and Freud as a Jewish writer was put on the list of prohibited books. Freud wryly remarked:

“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”

The Nazi’s often burned his books in public. In 1938, Hitler secured an Anschluss of Germany and Austria which placed all Jewish people in great peril, especially intellectuals. Freud, like many in his position, hoped to ride out the growing anti-semitism and stay in Austria. However, in March 1938, Anna Freud was detained by the Gestapo and he became more aware of how dire the situation was. With the help of Ernest Jones (then president of the IPA), Freud and 17 colleagues were given work permits to emigrate to Britain. However, the process of leaving proved tortuous with the Nazi party seeking to gain ‘exit levies’. Freud needed the help of sympathetic colleagues and friends to hide bank accounts and gain the necessary funds. When leaving Austria, Freud was required to sign a document testifying that he had been well and fairly treated. He did so, with a dry wit, adding in his own hand: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.(1)

Freud finally managed to leave Austria on 4 June by the Orient Express, arriving London, 6 June. (As a footnote, Freud’s four elderly sisters did not manage to escape Austria, and would later die in concentration camps.)

For the remaining years of his life, Freud lived at Hampstead, England, where he continued to see patients and continue his work.

In 1923, Freud had been diagnosed with cancer (a result of his smoking habit). Surgery was partially successful, but by 1939, the cancer of his jaw got progressively worse, putting him in great pain. He died on 23 September 1939.

In 1886, he married Martha Bernays; they had six children. Martha’s sister Minna Bernays also joined the household after her fiance died.

On religion

Although of Jewish ethnicity, Freud rejected conventional monotheistic religion as being an illusion and just a necessary step in mankind’s evolution. However, in Moses and Monotheism, Freud acknowledged that religion had played a role in encouraging investigation into the unknown.

Legacy of Freud

Freud was instrumental in the growth of psychoanalysis. His theories have proved controversial, but have often served as a reference either for those who support Freud or those who take an alternative view.

But, despite the immense influence of Freud, his views are increasingly questioned by people who reject the importance he attached to childhood sexuality. Also, contentious is Freud’s idea that humans are afflicted by a destructive ‘death impulse’.

Others criticise Freud for his lack of scientific enquiry – rather trusting to his own judgement and intuition.


Freud’s worked on many female patients, and many of his case studies involve Viennese women. He famously remarked:

“The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'”

In the 1960s and 70s, the feminist movement was highly critical of Freud’s theory. Simone de Beauvoir criticised psychoanalysis in her book “The Second Sex”. In the Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan considered Freud to have a ‘Victorian view’ of women.

However, despite the great controversy surrounding Freud’s theories, many believe him to be one of the most original and influential thinkers, who spawned a range of different approaches to issues of the subconscious, personal relationships and dreams.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography Sigmund Freud”, Oxford,,  23 March 2015. Last updated 15 February 2018.

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