Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: September 2014

7 - Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)


Life and Work

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born in 1856, in the small town of Freiberg, which at the time belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (renamed Příbor, it is now part of the Czech Republic). Both his parents were Jewish. Their domestic situation was unusual: Freud's mother, Amalia, was not only twenty years younger than her husband, Jacob, but also younger than Freud's oldest half-brother. In 1859, Jacob's wool business was facing financial ruin and he moved the family to Leipzig. They settled in Vienna the following year (by which time Freud's two half-brothers had emigrated to England). Jacob's commercial position remained precarious, however, and Freud's childhood and adolescence were marked by extreme austerity.

Freud did exceptionally well at school and went on to study medicine at the University of Vienna. Many of his professors were leading authorities in their fields, most notably the physiologist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke (1819–92), a charismatic multi-talent with a relentless work ethic who became a lifelong role model. Freud's time at university was interrupted by one year of compulsory military service, an unwelcome interlude during which he nonetheless acquitted himself well. As a student, Freud spent an unusual amount of time on scientific research, making two extended research trips to Trieste and working long hours in Brücke's physiological laboratory. Having obtained his medical degree in 1881, he wanted to continue his academic career, but soon afterwards he met the love of his life, Martha Bernays, and there was not enough money in research to allow him to set up home with her. He therefore began to prepare for a private practice by working in various departments of the Vienna General Hospital.