Freud: Conflict & Culture

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in the small town of Freiberg, now part of the Czech Republic. In 1860 the family settled in Vienna where Sigmund, as he came to call himself, received an education emphasizing classical literature and philosophy -- an education that would serve him well in developing his theories and conveying them to a wide audience. The cultural ferment, ethnic tensions, and class conflicts of fin-de-si├Ęcle Vienna were part of Freud's daily existence. The city was a hothouse for radical innovations in politics, philosophy, the arts, and sciences. Freud chose early to concentrate on research in neurology, a field in which the frontiers of knowledge were changing dramatically. Financial concerns eventually led him to pursue clinical work with patients. His analyses of patients and of himself became the chief sources for his professional writings.

Religion and the "Godless Jew"

Many have investigated and speculated about the role of religion in Freud's thought. Born into a Jewish family with religious roots, Freud would live a secular life while continuing to identify himself as a Jew. Jacob Freud, Sigmund's father, dedicated a copy of the family Bible to his adult son, with a Hebrew inscription calling it a "keepsake and a token of love."

Sigismund Schlomo Freud. Birth certificate, May 6, 1856. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (2)

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In my youth I felt an overpowering need to understand something of the riddles of the world in which we live and perhaps even to contribute something to their solution.

Sigmund Freud, 1927

Freud Family

Freud's mother, Amalia, was possibly his father's third wife and twenty years his younger. Sigmund's half-brother, Emanuel, was older than his mother and had children of his own when Sigmund was born. Thus Sigmund was born an uncle -- a year younger than his first playmate, his nephew.

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  • The Jacob Freud family, Vienna, ca. 1878. Copyprint. Freud Museum, London (7)
    (left to right standing) Pauline, Anna, unidentified girl, Sigmund, possibly Rosa's fiancé, Rosa, Marie, and Simon Nathanson [Amalia's cousin]; (sitting) Adolfine, Amalia, unidentified boy, Alexander, and Jacob

  • Amalia Freud. Cabinet card, 1903. Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress (8)

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Freud became a liberal because the liberal world view was congenial to him and because, as the saying goes, it was good for the Jews.

Peter Gay, 1988


At the turn of the century Vienna was a city that seemed both to resist and promote experimentation in politics and culture. If much of Freud's work was done in the city, his concerns and approach to problems drew on intellectual traditions and medical advances from a European-wide context. After a four-year engagement, Freud and Martha Bernays married and made Vienna their home for all but the final sixteen months of their life together. This collage of family photographs features a young Martha and Sigmund and their six children.

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Unpleasure remains the sole means of education.

Sigmund Freud, 1895

Early Work in Neuroscience

Freud's early training in neurology left him with an ambition to seek the biological Bedrock -- of all psychological conditions. Memory, for him, was at the crossroads of the biological and the psychological. When we remember, we are recoding original neurological traces. He described his research in letters to Martha Bernays, his future wife.

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In any event, [Freud's] researches in this field prove an extraordinary gift and capacity for guiding scientific investigation into new channels.

R. von Krafft-Ebing, 1888

Cocaine Ambitions

Freud thought that the then little-known drug cocaine might be of great use fighting morphine addiction and melancholy. Around the same time, an associate, Carl Koller, was experimenting successfully with the drug as a local anesthetic, especially for eye surgery. Freud envied the recognition Koller received, experimented with the drug himself and urged others to do so before realizing it could be addictive.

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  • Contribution to the Knowledge of Cocaine. Vienna: 1885. [with Freud's inscription to Josef Breuer]. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (18)

  • Envelope with prescription and wrapper that held cocaine, ca. 1883. Carl Koller papers. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (20)

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Many, if not most of Freud's fundamental conceptions were biological by inspiration as well as by implication.

Frank Sulloway, 1979

Transition to Medicine

Although dedicated to research early on, financial considerations led Freud to become a clinician. He gained experience at the General Hospital in Vienna before establishing his own practice at his residence, most famously at Berggasse 19. His patients became a primary source for his research and writing.

Patient record with comments by Freud, General Hospital in Vienna, 1883. Page one. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (17)

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