As David Bowie had his cocaine period, so too did Sigmund Freud, beginning in 1894 and lasting at least two years. Unlike the rock star, the doctor was just at the beginning of his career, “a nervous fellow” of 28 “who wanted to make good,” says Howard Markel, author of An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine. Markel tells Ira Flatow in the NPR Science Friday episode below that Freud “knew if he was going to get a professorship, he would have to discover something great.”
Freud's experiments with the drug led to the publication of a well-regarded paper called “Über Coca,” which he described as “a song of praise to this magical substance" in a “pretty racy” letter to his then-fiancé Martha Bernays. (He also promised she would be unable to resist the advances of: “a big, wild man who has cocaine in his body.”) Two years later, his health suffering, Freud apparently stopped all use of the drug and rarely mentioned it again.
[T]he accomplished young phsyiologist Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, whose morphine addiction Freud had tried to treat with cocaine, with disastrous results. As Freud wrote almost three decades later, “the study on coca was an allotrion” — an idle pursuit that distracts from serious responsibilities — “which I was eager to conclude.”
The drug was at the time touted as a panacea, and Fleischl-Marxow, Markel says, was “the first addict in Europe to be treated with this new therapeutic.” Freud also used himself as a test subject, unaware of the addictive properties of his cure for his friend's addiction and his own depression and reticence.
While Freud conducted his experiments, another medical pioneer---American surgeon William Halsted, one of Johns Hopkins “four founding physicians”---simultaneously found uses for the drug in his practice. Freud and Halsted never met and worked completely independently in entirely different fields, says Markel in the news segment above, but “their lives were braided together by a fascination with cocaine,” as addicts, and as readers and writers of “several medical papers about the latest, newest miracle drug of their era, 1894.” Halstead is responsible for many of the modern surgical techniques without which the prospect of surgery by today’s standards is unimaginable —the proper handling of exposed tissue, operating in aseptic environments, and surgical gloves. He injected patients with cocaine to numb regions of their body, allowing him to operate without rendering them unconscious.
Halsted, too, used himself as a guinea pig. “No doctor knew at this point,” says Markel above, “of the terrible addictive effects of cocaine” before Freud and Halsted’s experiments. Both men irrevocably changed their fields and almost destroyed their own lives in the process (see a short documentary on Halsted’s medical advances below). In Freud’s case, much of the work of psychoanalysis has come to be seen as pseudoscience—his work on dreams significantly so, as Markel says above: “Cocaine haunts the pages of the Interpretation of Dreams. The model dream is a cocaine dream.” The “talking cure,” however, engendered by the “loosening of the tongue” Freud experienced while on cocaine, endures as, of course, do Halsted’s innovations.