Born in a Jewish family in the Austrian empire (now Czech Republic) in 1856, Sigmund Freud decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps (who was a wool merchant). The oldest of the eight children, ‘the golden siggie’ (a nickname given to him by his mother, for being the favourite son) made up his mind to study law at the university of Vienna at the age of 17. But because of his curiosity of exploring the mysteries of the medical world, he ended up joining the medical faculty at the university, taking Philosophy, Physiology and Zoology, later beginning his medical career at the Vienna General hospital in 1882.
From early on in his career, his focus was on research work. His early work in cerebral anatomy led to the publication of a seminal paper on the palliative effects of cocaine.
Cocaine was used as an analgesic at that time, used even in common household products such as soda pop. It was only some years later, that the harmful effects were discovered, that would eventually ban it.
Shortly thereafter, Freud spent some time working in the Theodor Meynert’s psychiatric clinic and as a locum in a local asylum.
This became a turning point in his career.
He became more inclined towards clinical psychology, and later resigned his hospital post as the University lecturer in Neuropathology (after working there for one year in 1885) and entered private practice specializing in ‘nervous disorders’ in 1886.
The year he married his work was also the year he married Martha Bernays, with whom he had six children.
The idea behind his own practice was to discover new ways to treat the human mind.
He developed a theory that humans have an unconscious with different levels of it, and that dreams weren’t totally a ‘random occurrence’. In1897 began an intensive analysis on himself.
Three years later, ‘The interpretation of dreams’ was published – a book that analysed the dreams in terms of unconscious desires and experiences.
His dream analysis theory had a story of its own. While treating a patient named Irma (who was not getting well), Freud had started feeling guilty about her condition.
He would later meet Irma in a dream and be explained how her condition was caused by a dirty syringe used by the other doctor, relieving him of his guilt. Freud woke up to establish that the primary purpose behind dreaming was ‘wish fulfilment’.
Freud was offered the post of Professor of Neuropathology at the University of Vienna in 1902 that he took and held till 1938.
He was often asked about his powers of thinking and ‘brain work’. From the age of 24, Freud had sustained a smoking habit. One that he believed helped him in the same.
A dangerous habit, indeed.
Almost as dangerous as his work was being considered at the time. In 1923, he published ‘The Ego and the Id’ (suggesting that there are three levels of the mind – the Id or the instincts part, the Ego or the Reality dealing part and the Superego or the Morality region). His structural models of the human mind and the association of his theories with EVERYTHING from art and culture to sexuality and wars came tough times.
In 1923, the Nazis publicly burned a number of his books.
Freud moved to London after the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938.
The other highlights of Freud’s work are his methods of Psychoanalysis – the most common of which was him telling his patients to ‘talk freely’ on his couch – one used in the same way by experts till this date, the Defence mechanisms theory and his Psychosexual stages theory.
Sadly, the one thing he thought was a helping hand in his thinking proved out to be fatal.
Freud had developed a cancer of the jaw in 1923, which made him undergo more than 30 operations. He died of cancer on September 23, 1939.
To honor his Genius, the ‘Sigmund Freud Prize’ (started in 1967 as a German literary award) is awarded every year till date to extraordinary people.