The Young Freud (1856 - 84) (1).

"At the time of my birth an old peasant woman had prophesised to my proud mother
that she had brought a great man into the world. Prophecies of this kind must be very
common; there are so many mothers filled with happy expectations and so many old peasant
women and others of the kind who make up for the loss of their power to control things
in the present world by concentration on the future."
- Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900.

Freud and his father

Like many notable men Sigismund Schlomo Freud had humble beginnings. He was born on the sixth of May 1856 in a single room above a blacksmith's shop in the small Moravian town of Freiberg (now Pribor, Czechoslovakia), the first child of the marriage between Jacob Freud (pictured with the young Sigmund left), a Jewish wool merchant, and his second, or possibly third, wife Amalie. Jacob appears to have been a kind hearted but rather weak willed and foolish man, whilst Amalie was a much stronger character. Jacob had two older sons from his first marriage, Emmanuel and Philipp, who lived nearby. Both were of a similar age to Amalie and Emmanuel was already married with a child by the time Freud was born, making for a somewhat odd family constellation. The young boy was both perplexed by and curious about his complex family relations, which undoubtedly helped to shape his later outlook on life. There is a slight possibility that Freud's mother had an affair with Philipp - Freud was suspicious of him and thought that he might be in some way responsible for the births of his later siblings. Emmanuel, however, was adored from the start.


The Freud family was forced to leave Freiberg when little Sigi was three. This was probably due to Jacob's failing business, though other reasons have been suggested, such as the alleged affair between Amalie and Philipp. They settled in Leipzig, Saxony in August 1859 but had to move again, in March 1860, to the legendary Vienna (a city famous, somewhat erroneously, for its decadence and lax morals but also reputed to be one of the most anti-Semitic places in Europe). Freud always professed to hate the city but nevertheless refused to leave it for another seventy-eight years. His half brothers left Austria for Manchester, England, in 1859, and spent the rest of their lives there. Once in Vienna Jacob's finances slowly improved, possibly through dubious means as Jacob's brother Josef was later sent to prison for dealing in counterfeit roubles: Jacob, Emmanuel and Philipp were implicated but not brought to trial. The stress of this unsavoury affair, Freud later recalled, turned his father's hair grey virtually overnight.

Freud and his mother and sisters

Whether guilty or not, Jacob certainly could have used the forged money to support his rapidly growing family as Amalie presented him with seven more children over the ten years following Freud's birth. Her second child, Julius, born in October 1857, died as an infant in Freiberg and was succeeded by five girls - Anna in December 1858, Regine Deborah (Rosa) in March 1860, Maria (Mitzi) in March 1861, Esther Adolfine (Dolfi) in July 1862 (pictured with Sigmund, Amalie and Rosa right), and Pauline Regine (Paula) in May 1864. Another son, Alexander, eventually arrived in April 1866. Sigmund remained his mother's favourite though, the child upon whom all hopes and expectations for the future were placed, and was the only one to be given his own room in the house in Vienna. His sisters, at least, expected (and for the most part accepted) less than equal treatment: when young Sigmund complained that Anna's piano lessons were disturbing his studies, the piano was quickly removed.

In his education Freud was not encouraged to be an orthodox Jew. His parents did not celebrate Jewish festivals, and Gentiles surrounded him from a very early age; he had a Roman Catholic nursemaid, Resi Wittek, who took him to church. He took an early non-religious stance to life by rejecting all religious practices, but never abandoned Judaism completely as he still felt in essence a Jew as far as race was concerned. In 1926 he told an interviewer: "My language is German. My culture, my attainments are German. I considered myself German intellectually, until I noticed the growth of Anti Semitic prejudice in Germany and Austria. Since that time I prefer to call myself a Jew" (2). Freud originally received lessons from his parents at their home, then from the age of nine attended Leopoldstadt high school, which admitted both Jews and Gentiles. Freud proved to be a very good student and spent seven years at the top of the class.

In 1873 Freud enrolled at Vienna University. He was intending to take a law course but was allegedly inspired to study medicine after hearing a recital of the famous essay "On Nature" then attributed to the dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Freud was academically at a disadvantage because he was a Jew (Jews were blamed for the stock market crash of that year), but, like most assimilated Viennese Jews, was prejudiced himself towards those from the East. At the age of sixteen, he described a young Eastern Jew he met on a train thus:

"He was of the kind of wood from which fate carves the swindler when the time is ripe:
crafty, mendacious, encouraged by his dear relations in the belief that he has talent,
but without principles or a view of life".

As Peter Gay succinctly remarks, "a professional Jew baiter could hardly have expressed it more forcefully" (3). Freud stayed at the university for three years longer than the average student due to his passion for research, which delayed him in taking his final exams. He wanted to explore and discover new territories, not just repeat the ideas of others. Freud originally leaned towards zoology, conducting experiments on river eels to see if they had gonads (an ironic subject for the future discoverer of the castration complex!), then switched to physiology.

Josef Breuer

From 1876 until 1882 Freud studied at the Vienna Psychological Institute under the formidable Ernst Brucke (1819-92). Brucke became the first in a succession of father figures for the young Freud and exerted a great influence over him, imparting the self discipline and urge to pursue truths, however unpleasant, that would prove so crucial in all his later work. Freud also befriended Josef Breuer (1842-1925 - left), an eminent physician fourteen years his senior, at the Psychological Institute. He finally graduated in March 1881.

Freud and Martha

After graduation Freud stayed at his beloved Institute for a year, then applied for a post at the Vienna General Hospital. He needed more money as he had fallen in love - with Martha Bernays (pictured with Freud right). Martha, a friend of his sister's, became his long-term fiancée and his first important female companion since a teenage infatuation with Gisela Fluss, the sister of a childhood friend. Freud had been infatuated with Gisela's mother too, but disliked Martha's mother, Emmeline, who opposed the marriage since Freud was a penniless atheist with seemingly few prospects who appeared to be virtually supporting his entire family. Their courtship, which was scarcely mentioned by Freud in his later Autobiographical Study and suppressed by him as much as possible, shows him at his most passionate, intense, and, it must be said, tyrannical. He was antagonistic towards Martha's family, especially her brother Eli, at first a friend of his, who became his brother-in-law twice over since he later married Freud's sister Anna. Freud was tormented by thoughts of Martha's other suitors and put cruel demands upon her, insisting that she give up her own family relations once she married him. Freud knew that he could only make enough money to give Martha a proper home if he went into private practice, and working at the hospital was good preparation for this.

In November 1882, Freud made the first tentative step towards the discovery of psychoanalysis when Breuer gave him the particulars of the case of "Anna O". Anna was a young girl of twenty-one under Breuer's care from December 1880 until mid 1882 who had developed "hysterical" symptoms after the death of her sick father, whom she had nursed devotedly. Breuer discovered that under hypnosis she could be made to re-enact strong emotional responses to painful incidents in her past that had apparently been suppressed and "forgotten about" immediately after they had first occurred. Once an event had been discovered, the symptoms relating to it disappeared (4). Freud was fascinated by this case and was always pestering the reluctant Breuer to tell him more about it.

In April 1884 Freud started to experiment with cocaine - it is not known for how long or for how often. He wrote several enthusiastic papers extolling its virtues and prescribed it to everyone, including his sisters and his fiancée. Freud was annoyed that he missed being awarded the credit for finding out that cocaine could be used as an anaesthetic - unfortunately for him his friend Carl Koller made this discovery whilst Freud was away visiting Martha at her home in Wandsbek, near Hamburg. Freud decided to test the drug on his friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, a morphine addict. This cured his morphine habit but got him addicted to cocaine instead. Freud was eventually forced to admit that he had been wrong about cocaine as cases of addiction were reported from all over the world and he was vilified for encouraging people to take it internally and unleashing the "third scourge of humanity" (the others being morphine and alcohol).


1) Since biographical information is important (some might say indispensable) for an understanding of Freud's work, I begin this chapter with a brief appraisal of his life history. As this is only a short account there is not enough space to deal fully with all the issues and controversies surrounding his persona; only the most relevant ones will be considered.

2) See Gay, Peter ([1988] 1995) Freud: A Life For Our Time, Papermac, London, p.448.

3) See Gay, Peter (1995), p.19.

4) However, as Henri Ellenberger revealed in the 1970's, Anna (really Bertha Pappenheim, later a pioneering social reformer) was not completely cured by Breuer, as psychoanalytic legend would have us believe: she later had a relapse and was admitted to the Bellevue sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland. Furthermore, it is also evident that Freud was aware of this. Anna may not in fact have been suffering from hysteria at all but from some form of organic illness such as meningitis. See Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970) Discovery of the Unconscious, Basic Books Inc, New York.

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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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