Sigmund Freud Photobiography

Sigmund Freud's Early Life

Amalia Freud. Library of Congress

Famed psychologist Sigmund Freud may be one of the best known figures in history, but he is also one of the most controversial. The legacy of his life and work provokes both impassioned acclaim from his supporters and disdain from his detractors. While some view him as a cultural icon and others see him as a pseudoscientific charlatan, there is no question that Freud left an indelible mark on psychology.

In this photobiography, we will explore Freud's life from his birth in the tiny town of Frieberg, Moravia, to his death at age 83 in London. Along the way, you will learn more about how his life and work influenced the theories and ideas that continue to influence psychology, philosophy, literature, and art.

"Deep within me, covered over, there still lives that happy child from Freiberg…" –Sigmund Freud on his early childhood.

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on May 6, 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia. His father, Jakob, was a wool merchant with two children from a previous marriage. His mother, Amalia (pictured above), was twenty years younger than her husband. Sigismund was her first child.

As his mother's eldest child, he was also her particular favorite, her "golden Siggie." Amalia had high hopes for her son. "I have found," Freud later said, "that people who know that they are preferred or favored by their mothers give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self-reliance and an unshakable optimism which often bring actual success to their possessors."

When he was four, his father's business failed and the family left Freiberg for Vienna, Austria. Young Freud excelled in school, placing at the top of his class for seven out of eight years. He changed his name to Sigmund in 1878 and later earned a degree in medicine from the University of Vienna.

Sigmund Freud's Influences

Jean-Martin Charcot teaching at the Salpêtrière.. Photo Courtesy David Monniaux

"The hysterical attack corresponds to a memory from a patient's life." - Sigmund Freud, 1895

After completing his degree, Freud began to conduct research on neurophysiology. He had earned a medical degree, but he was not particularly interested in the practice of medicine. While he was more concerned with science and research, he knew that he needed a steady career in order to marry his fiancé, Martha Bernays.

Charcot and Hypnotism

In 1885, Freud went to study with Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière in Paris. Charcot was utilizing hypnosis to treat women suffering from what was then known as hysteria. Symptoms of the illness included partial paralysis, hallucinations, and nervousness. Patients were also photographed, which made Charcot's results questionable. Many of his patients were eager to perform for the cameras and dramatically exaggerated their symptoms as well as the results of Charcot's treatment.

Anna O. and Talk Therapy

Freud would continue to research the use of hypnotism in treatment, but it was his friendship with colleague Josef Breuer that led to the development of his most famous therapeutic technique. Breuer described his treatment of a young woman, known in the case history as Anna O., whose symptoms of hysteria were relieved by talking about her traumatic experiences. Freud and Breuer collaborated on a book, Studies on Hysteria, and Freud continued to develop his use of this "talk therapy."

The Early Years of Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud 1907
Sigmund Freud in 1907. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

"Psychoanalysis will bring the repressed in mental life to conscious acknowledgment…" - Sigmund Freud, 1910.


Freud continued to develop his ideas about the unconscious, talk therapy, and other theories. He first used the term "psychoanalysis" in 1896. After his father's death in 1896, Freud began an extended period of self-analysis. During this time, Freud exchanged many letters with his friend, William Fleiss, a Berlin doctor who shared a great deal in common with Freud. In his letters, Freud theorized on the hidden meaning of dreams and his own intense feelings of love for his mother, which would eventually lead to his notion of the Oedipal complex. "I have found, in my own case," he wrote, "being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood" (Freud, 1897).

The Interpretation of Dreams

The publication of his book The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 laid the groundwork for much of his psychoanalytic theory. While he had high hopes for his book, initial sales were slow and reviews were generally disappointing. In his book, he described concepts that became a central part of psychoanalysis, including the unconscious, the Oedipal complex, and dream interpretation. Despite the poor performance of the book, it became one of the seminal works in the history of psychology and Freud later described it as his personal favorite.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

Freud also continued to develop his theories, publishing The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901. The book introduced concepts such as the Freudian slip (or slips of the tongue), suggesting that such events reveal underlying, unconscious thoughts and motivations. Considering how controversial Freud's theories still are today, it is not surprising that his ideas were met with great skepticism among his peers. The publication of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905 served to deepen the divide between Freud and the medical community.

The Rise of Psychoanalysis

International Psychoanalytic Congress, 1911.. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

"I am still under the reverberating impact of your lecture, which seemed to me perfection itself." –Jung on Freud's lecture at the first Psychoanalytic Congress

The Rise of Freudian Psychology

The publication of his books helped spread Freud's ideas to a much wider audience. While a growing number of critics attacked Freud's theories, he developed a following among a number of his contemporaries. His relationship with Breuer had deteriorated, mostly due to Breuer's disagreement with Freud's emphasis on sexuality, but theorists such as Carl Jung and Alfred Adler became increasingly interested in Freud's ideas.

The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society

In 1902, Freud began hosting a weekly discussion in his home that would later give rise to the first psychoanalytic organization. The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society was first founded in 1908, and the first International Psychoanalytic Congress was held in Salzburg that same year. Eventually, some of Freud's early followers would break from his ideas to form their own schools of thought.

The Psychoanalytic Congress

In 1908, the first international meeting of psychoanalysts was held in Salzburg. Freud was the keynote speaker during the one-day meeting, although a number of other psychoanalysts gave lectures as well. The Psychoanalytic Congress would soon become an annual event, which would continue to fuel the spread and development of psychoanalysis.

Freud in America

Freud at Clark University. Front Row: Freud, G. Stanley Hall, C.J. Jung. Back Row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi.. Public Domain Image

"The thought of America does not seem to matter to me, but I am looking forward very much to our journey together." – Sigmund Freud, 1909

The Invitation

In 1909, Freud received an invitation from the President of Clark University, G. Stanley Hall, to give a series of lectures in America on the history of psychoanalysis. Freud initially declined the first invitation, stating that he could not afford to abandon his work for three weeks in order to visit America. Hall, however, was persistent. His second invitation included an offer to pay Freud (a sum of $714.60) in exchange for five lectures on the theories of psychoanalysis (Wallace, 1975).

Coming to America

Freud accepted Hall's second invite and sailed to America accompanied by his colleague, Dr. Sandor Ferenczi. One of Freud's other associates, Carl Jung, had also been invited to lecture at the university and the three soon chose to travel together. The trip would mark Freud's first and only time visiting America. Freud, Jung and Ferenczi spent several days sightseeing in New York with fellow Freudian disciples A.A. Brill and Ernst Jones before traveling to Clark University.

The Lectures

After arriving at Clark University, Freud was pleased to discover that Hall had introduced psychoanalysis to the school's curriculum. In a series of five lectures, Freud detailed the rise and growth of psychoanalysis. The lectures were delivered in German and were mostly extemporaneous and highly conversational. "As I stepped onto the platform," Freud later described, "it seemed like the realization of some incredible daydream: Psychoanalysis was no longer a product of delusion--it had become a valuable part of reality" (Wallace, 1975).

Freud and Jung

An Early Friendship Give Way to a Bitter Rivalry Carl Jung, 1910. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

"One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil." – Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, quoted by Jung to Freud

Freud and Jung's Early Relationship

In April of 1906, Freud began a correspondence with a young psychiatrist named Carl Gustav Jung. They first met in person when Jung traveled to Vienna on February 27, 1907, and the two were fast friends. Jung later described his initial impressions of Freud as "…extremely intelligent, shrewd, and altogether remarkable."

They corresponded extensively over the next seven years, with Freud viewing Jung as protégé and heir to psychoanalysis.

Breaking From Freud

This relationship and collaboration began to deteriorate as the years went on. While Freud had viewed Jung as the most innovative and original of his followers, he was unhappy with Jung's disagreement with some of the basic tenets of Freudian theory. For example, Jung believed that Freud was too focused on sexuality as a motivating force. He also felt that Freud's concept of the unconscious was limited and overly negative. Instead of simply being a reservoir of repressed thoughts and motivations, as Freud believed, Jung argued that the unconscious could also be a source of creativity.

While the official break from Freud came when Jung resigned from the International Psychoanalytic Congress, the hostility growing between the two was readily apparent in the letters they exchanged. At one point, Jung scathingly wrote, "...your technique of treating your pupils like patients is a blunder. In that way you produce either slavish sons or impudent puppies... I am objective enough to see through your little trick" (McGuire, 1974).

Influence on Psychology

While the theoretical differences between the two men marked the end of their friendship, their collaboration had a lasting influence on the further development of their respective theories. Jung went on to form his own influential school of thought known as analytical psychology.

Freud's reaction to the defection of Jung, and later that of Alfred Adler, was to close ranks and further guard his theories. Eventually, an inner-circle of only the most devoted followers was formed. Often referred to as "the Committee," the group included Freud, Sandor Ferenczi, Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, and Ernest Jones.

Freud's Patients and Therapy

Freud's Therapy Couch - Now located in the Freud Museum, London.. Photo courtesy Konstantin Binder

"take my hands in your hands, teach me to remember, teach me not to remember." - H.D., 1961

Much of Freudian therapy grew directly out of Freud's work with his psychoanalytic patients. As he tried to understand and explain their symptoms, he grew increasingly interested in the role of the unconscious mind in the development of mental illness.

Anna O.

While Anna O. is often referred to as one of Freud's most famous patients, the two never actually met. The real Anna O., a young woman by the name of Bertha Pappenheim, was actually a patient of Freud's friend and colleague, Josef Breuer. Through discussing her symptoms and treatment with Breuer and their eventual work on a book titled Studies on Hysteria, Freud continued to develop his theory and use of talk therapy.

Rat Man

Another of Freud's famous case studies is that of a young lawyer named Ernst Lanzer who is known as "the Rat Man" in the case history. Lanzer was plagued by obsessions with rats. In 1908, Freud presented the case in an extended lecture at the first meeting of the International Psychoanalytic Congress.


One of Freud's most famous patients was the American poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle, who referred to herself as H.D. In 1933, Doolittle traveled to Vienna to undergo psychoanalytic treatment with Freud. She was experiencing distress following the end of World War I, and was increasingly worried about the threat of World War II. Doolittle later wrote a memoir titled Tribute to Freud, which was originally published in 1945.

The Wolf Man

Sergei Pankejeff was a Russian man who suffered from depression before eventually seeking out help from Freud. Dubbed the "Wolf Man" because of a childhood dream about wolves, the case ended up having a major influence on Freud's theory of psychosexual development. After a year of treatment, Freud declared the man cured, but Pankejeff's problems were far from over. He continued to seek out treatment for his depression for the rest of his life. When interviewed by a journalist prior to his death in 1979, Pankojeff lamented "...the whole thing looks like a catastrophe. I am in the same state as when I came to Freud, and Freud is no more."

Leaving Vienna

Freud's Home - Vienna, Austria.. Photo Courtesy Dr. Meierhofer

"The triumphant feeling of liberation is mingled too strongly with mourning…" – Sigmund Freud on leaving Vienna for London

Freud spent the majority of his life in Vienna, Austria. When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Freud was targeted for being Jewish and for being the founder of psychoanalysis. Many of his books were burned and both he and his daughter, Anna Freud, were interrogated by the Gestapo. With the help of his friend, Marie Bonaparte, Freud was able to finally leave Vienna for London on June 4, 1938 with his wife and youngest daughter. Despite efforts by Bonaparte to secure passage for Freud's elderly sisters, she was unable to do so. All four women later died in Nazi concentration camps.

The Final Year

Sigmund Freud, 1938.. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

"if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion" - W.H. Auden, "In Memory of Sigmund Freud"

After arriving in London, Freud and his wife, Martha, moved into a new home at 20 Maresfield Gardens. Since 1923, Freud had been battling mouth cancer, which had required numerous operations. His final surgery was performed in September of 1938. That same year, he published his final and perhaps most controversial book, Moses and Monotheism.

When his cancer once again returned, his doctor's declared the tumor inoperable. His condition continued to deteriorate throughout the year. On September 21, Freud asked his doctor to administer a large dose of morphine. He died on September 23, 1939 at the age of 83.

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