How a Young Sigmund Freud Researched & Got Addicted to Cocaine, the New “Miracle Drug,” in 1894

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.

Freud’s cocaine use began, in fact, with tragedy, “the anguished death of one of his dearest friends,” writes The New York Times in a review of Markel’s book:

[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.

Related Content:

Freud’s Thought Explained in Yale Psych Course (Find Full Course on our List of 875 Free Online Courses)

Sigmund Freud Speaks: The Only Known Recording of His Voice, 1938

Sigmund Freud’s Home Movies: A Rare Glimpse of His Private Life

Jean-Paul Sartre Writes a Script for John Huston’s Film on Freud (1958)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • William Large

    “In Freud’s case, much of the work of psychoanalysis has come to be seen as pseudoscience.”

    Medicine is not a science. Of course it is based on scientific research, but it is not a science. It is practice or an art. Freud thought it might be possible to base his ideas on neuroscientific research (a very faint hope), which was his specialization early in this career, but psychoanalysis itself is a practice. You might claim that it a ‘pseudo-practice’ but that is something very different from a ‘pseudo-science’.

  • Raylean Landen

    Cocaine in all its glamour could not entice a wise intelligent man past the brink of no return. It is interesting to see how the man recognized the line of addiction, and was able to consciously make decisions to avoid continuing down it to a path of destruction as implied here: ” an idle pursuit that distracts from serious responsibilities — “which I was eager to conclude.” Beginning with a traumatic event which most addictions do flourish in such environments, it is another confirmation that the problem is not the drug use, but rather the cause of it and the decision making after it. More treatment facilities are needed that focus on action based real life recovery model like House of Recovery, that looks past the surface and addresses the real problems, where the cure is.