It was 75 years ago today (September 23, 1939) that Sigmund Freud passed away at the age of 83.
After a long and debilitating struggle with cancer of the jaw, he died following several lethal doses of morphine, which were administered by his physician Max Schur, with the full consent of both Freud and his family.
Schur was appointed to Freud by way of a close personal friend, as noted by Lucille B. Ritvo in her American Scientist review of Freud: Living and Dying by Max Schur, in which the author charts the decade he spent in the company of the world’s most influential psychoanalyst. “In 1928 Princess Marie Bonaparte persuasively recommended her 31-year old internist, Max Schur, to Sigmund Freud to replace the personal physician dismissed in 1923 for withholding from Freud and his family the painful diagnosis of cancer.” The physician in question was Felix Deutsch, who played down the severity of Freud’s condition, which undoubtedly assisted in the swift development of the disease that would come to make his life a living hell.
The oft-cited father of modern psychoanalysis, Freud published a number of hugely influential studies throughout his lifetime, including The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung) (1900), Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1917) and The Ego and the Id (1923). Throughout these works and others, Freud established his theories on how the human mind functions, what motivates us, and how we process the traumas we inevitably experience as we progress through life.
The most controversial elements of Freud’s work were those which focused on sex and sexuality, particularly those which speculated on the inherent sexual desires which he believed exist in various forms and stages from birth. His theories of “Psychosexual development” and the developmental stages of sexuality challenged both the belief and moral structure of Central Europe (and beyond) at the time, causing outrage and furore.
To get to the root of Freud’s primary theories concerning this topic, there is one publication in particular which serves as a solid reference point: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, published in 1905.
The first English edition of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality appeared in 1949. A review published the following year in the first issue of The British Journal of Delinquency, further emphasized its importance, almost half a century after its initial publication, stating;
“Although not directly concerned with the delinquent aspect of sexual perversions and aberrations, the book is a classic which should be owned and constantly consulted by every worker in the field of delinquency. It comprises three sections dealing with Sexual Aberrations, Infantile Sexuality, and the Transformation of Puberty. Although written for trained psychologists, the presentation is clear enough to be understood by any lay reader who is prepared to make the mental effort which the complications of these subjects demand.”
The review goes on to reference the controversy surrounding particular elements of the piece, namely the segment on developmental stages of sexuality within children and infants:
“Those who are interested in the original findings regarding infantile sexuality, which at the time caused such an uproar throughout Europe and America, cannot fail to note that much that was then regarded either as revolutionary or obscene, is now the accepted outlook of the average discerning parent.”
R. G. Gordon, writing for The British Medical Journal, further explains the controversy surrounding the book: “When Three Essays made its first appearance forty years ago it may be said to have rivalled the work of Galileo in the storm of indignation, hostility, and recrimination which it evoked.” Gordon places great significance on the inherent value of the publication:
“The book was the basis of a large part of Freudian teaching, and from its conclusions, with the doctrines set out in The Interpretation of Dreams, there developed the theory and practice of psycho-analysis. Not only this, but the startling conclusions on the theory of sexuality have now become fairly generally accepted.”
The book is divided into three sections, the first of which is entitled Sexual aberrations. In this section, Freud outlines what he feels are aberrations (characteristics that deviate from the “normal type”), within sexual behaviour. This includes the areas of homosexuality and bisexuality, which are termed as “Inversion”, as well as a self-explanatory chapter on “The Sexually Immature and Animals as Sexual Objects.” Whilst it would be both morally and ethically objectionable to classify those of a different sexual inclination alongside deviant sexual behaviour in any modern tome, Freud remains objective in his analysis, attempting to explain the psychological motivations for such preferences in a clear and studious manner for readers of the Edwardian Era (1901 – 1910).
Freud’s writings on child abuse, for example, disavow the theory that only a person who was out of their mind could commit such a heinous act; citing teachers and servants as common perpetrators, due to their unsupervised access to children: “For esthetic reasons one would fain attribute this and other excessive aberrations of the sexual desire to the insane, but this cannot be done. Experience teaches that among the latter no disturbances of the sexual impulse can be found other than those observed among the sane, or among whole races and classes.”
“Deviation in Reference to the Sexual Aim” is where a great deal of the world first learned about sexual fetishes and fetishists, as Freud breaks down the transferral of desire to objects and elements (sometimes obscure parts of the body) which hold some greater psychological association. He uses a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust to emphasise this; “Get me a handkerchief from her bosom—a garter of my love.”
Freud examines the sexual peculiarities which exist within the troubled mind in “The Sexual Impulse in Neurotics”, as he outlines how only “cathartic” treatment can allow for an understanding of bizarre sexual motives. A study of “Infantile Sexuality” makes associations between the stages of physical fixation (breastfeeding, potty training) and associated sexual development, as well as the behavioural idiosyncrasies which it can lead to in later life. These ideals are further explored in “The Sexual Latency Period of Childhood and Its Emergence” and “Puberty”, which go on to provide one of the first psychological insights into the complex desires of the adolescent and young adult.
Whilst his theories have been challenged, debated and refuted in the three quarters of a century since his passing, there is no arguing that, through his studies, Freud provided the world with a greater understanding of the sexuality of humans than any neurologist who had preceded him.
Princess Bonaparte not only provided Freud with the physician who would see him through his final years, but also gave him a gift of an ancient Greek urn which he kept in his study for many years. Freud’s ashes rest at the Golders Green Crematorium in London, sealed within that same urn.
American Scientist, Vol. 62, No. 6 (November-December 1974), pp. 748-749
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
How to Do the History of Psychoanalysis: A Reading of Freud's "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality"
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 2, The Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis (Winter, 1987), pp. 252-277
The University of Chicago Press
The British Journal of Delinquency, Vol. 1, No. 1 (July, 1950), pp. 66-67
Oxford University Press
The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4643 (Dec. 31, 1949), pp. 1513-1514