Sigmund Freud and Cocaine Use

A story of Sigmund Freud and his cocaine use throughout his brilliant career

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  1. Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis; and later a heavy cocaine user and perscriber. While Freud is well known for his work in creating psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst, Freud developed therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association and discovered transference. His analysis of dreams and the concept of anger repression also were notable accomplishments. However, a less-known side of Freud was his abuse of cocaine as well as his openness to test it on patients and often times prescribe it to them. While all historians agree that Freud had a serious addiction to cocaine, not all agree to what degree this addiction affected his work or if they had an impact on some of his brilliant theories, specifically The Interpretation of Dreams. Some historians believe that his work and theories were heavily influenced by the drug abuse, while others believe that the drug use ultimately had no effect on his work. Although Freud wasn’t the only doctor or human using cocaine during the 19th century, his use may have had the biggest impact of all.

  2. As a medical researcher, Freud was an early user and proponent of cocaine as a stimulant and that cocaine was a cure for many mental and physical problems. Freud also recommended cocaine as a cure for morphine addiction. He had introduced cocaine to his friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow who had become addicted to morphine taken to relieve years of excruciating nerve pain resulting from an infection acquired while performing an autopsy. However, his claim that Fleischl-Marxow was cured of his addiction was premature, though he never acknowledged he had been at fault. Fleischl-Marxow developed an acute case of "cocaine psychosis", and soon returned to using morphine, dying a few years later after more suffering from intolerable pain. The application as an anesthetic turned out to be one of the few safe uses of cocaine, and as reports of addiction and overdose began to filter in from many places in the world, Freud's medical reputation became somewhat tarnished. After the mishap with his friend, Freud ceased to publicly recommend use of the drug, but continued to take it himself occasionally for depression, migraine and nasal inflammation during the early 1890’s, before discontinuing in 1896. In this period he came under the influence of his friend and confidant Fliess, who recommended cocaine for the treatment of the so-called nasal reflex neurosis. Fliess, who operated on the noses of several of his own patients, also performed operations on Freud and on one of Freud's patients whom he believed to be suffering from the disorder. However, the surgery proved disastrous. It has been suggested by some that much of Freud's early psychoanalytical theory was a by-product of his cocaine use; after all how could twelve years of habitually using cocaine not have influenced his thinking in some way?

  3. One of the proponents of this theory is Jennie Burd who wrote about Freud’s career and how cocaine became such a large part of it; especially throughout the years that he developed theories about dreams. Supporting this theory was Sherwin Nuland that wrote about the major events in his life throughout his addiction to cocaine. During the period of Freud’s he wrote frequently about cocaine, making plenty of references to its debilitating effect on his clarity of thought. 1896 was the year in which two major events occurred in Freud’s life. The first was the publication in a French medical journal of his influential article “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” in which the word “psychoanalysis” is used for the first time; the second was the death of his father. Both of the sources agreed upon the fact that the cocaine abuse had at least some effect on Freud’s work in the 12 years that he used the drug. Nuland also told about the writing of Freud and how he would praise cocaine saying, “a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature.” Freud also wrote about the many self-experiments in which he had swallowed various quantities of the drug, finding it useful in relieving brief episodes of depression and anxiety.

  4. Though this paper is focused on just the cocaine use of Sigmund Freud, I want to make sure that it is known that he and some of his colleagues were not the only ones that used the drug in the 19th century. Cocaine had been used for over 10,000 years in South American and after the Spanish invaded, Europeans made money selling coca leaves to the natives who would use it to work longer days because of the effects of the drug. Coca leaves, however, do not travel well, so the drug didn’t gain notoriety within the European medical community until the 1860s. By 1884, cocaine was available in pharmacies and some doctors were experimenting with its possible applications in the medical and military fields. However, according Dominic Streatfield, author of Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, “if there is one person who can be held responsible for the emergence of cocaine as a recreational pharmaceutical, it was Freud.”

  5. According to the documentary from PBS, “cocaine haunts the pages of The Interpretation of Dreams, the model dream is a cocaine dream, but addiction therapists would call it a using dream.” Clearly, the documentary takes a stance like many other historians in that his use of cocaine may have laid the foundation for some of his greatest work in his career. Freud got to a point in the last decade of the 19th century that he was always depressed, had chest pain and his nose was so congested that he had to have a surgeon open it up with a knife so that he could breathe. 

  6. Cocaine: How 'Miracle Drug' Nearly Destroyed Sigmund Freud, William Halsted
  7. After his symptoms got so severe, he almost killed a patient in the 1890’s while under the influence of cocaine. After that incident Freud stopped using cocaine and didn’t use it again all the way up to his death in 1939. At this point in time, the world didn’t know the “bad side” of cocaine until 10 or so years down the road when there were large amounts of people that were addicted to it and didn’t have a way to be weaned off of the drug. They have Sigmund Freud to thank for that. 

  8. When I first decided on this topic, I knew close to nothing about it. Learning about it was very interesting and creating the conversations with my different sources answered some of my questions, but also caused me to generate more. I think that Freud’s cocaine use had an impact on the work that he did, specifically about (cocaine) dreams, and that some parts of his work may not had been as good as it was without the influence of cocaine. However, I don’t think that in the long-term that his work was any more or any less effective or brilliant because of the use of cocaine. Yet, some questions arise from the research I conducted; like how his deteriorating health impacted his work, and if he wouldn’t have used cocaine if he would have lived longer and generated even more brilliant ideas. Both of those questions will never be answered, and that is what makes this topic so intriguing. 

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