Statue of Sigmund Freud, Clark University
"The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious; what I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied." — The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was born in the town of Freiberg in what was then the Austrian Empire (now PrĂ­bor, Czech Republic), on May 6, 1856. When he was three years old his family, fleeing from the anti-Semitic riots then raging in Freiberg, moved to Leipzig. Shortly thereafter, the family settled in Vienna, where Freud remained for most of his life.

Freud was educated at Vienna University. He started out as a medical doctor and scientist, but one of his superiors told him that he would never go far in his career because he was Jewish. So Freud went into the less crowded field of psychology, and he was interested in a mental illness called hysteria. Most people diagnosed as hysterics were women, and they sometimes received horrific treatments—isolation, electrocution, or surgical removal of the uterus. So Freud started using hypnosis to treat hysteria, and that led him to a groundbreaking method, "the talking cure," which he believed could be used to treat all kinds of mental illness. He knew it would be difficult for a woman to talk to her doctor about her fears, desires, and traumas. So he took a couch that had belonged to his wife, covered it with a Persian rug, and asked his patients to lie down on it. They could stare at an empty wall instead of looking at him, and he sat behind them as they talked, occasionally asking a question. He called the process free association.

He realized that his patients were not even conscious of all their desires, fears, or even past traumas; so he studied the unconscious, and wrote about it in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). He wrote many books, including The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Many of his books were read by the general public, in part because they talked so frankly about sex.

When the Germans occupied Austria in 1938, Freud, a Jew, was persuaded by friends to escape with his family to England.

Freud died on September 23, 1939, in his home in Hampstead, London. He had undergone thirty-three operations for cancer of the palate and the jaw, and was in constant pain.

Freud had difficulty hearing and speaking; finally, he could no longer eat. His doctor, Max Schur, came to see him, and Freud grasped him by the hand. "My dear Schur," he said, "you remember our first talk. You promised to help me when I could no longer carry on. It is only torture now, and it has no longer any sense."

Schur gave Freud a third of a grain of morphine; he fell into a coma, and died thirty-six hours later.


Chronology of Freud's life