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 says:

    “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 says:

    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.

  • Tara Brannelly says:

    Psy­cho­analy­sis is not a pseu­do sci­ence. It is an effec­tive method of treat­ment. Peo­ple who are can­di­dates for psy­cho­analy­sis are peo­ple who have sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems in apply­ing them­selves and their intel­lect to mean­ing­ful work. They may also have long­stand­ing issues in their rela­tion­ships with others–including love rela­tion­ships.

    Cur­rent­ly, peo­ple are not accept­ed for psy­cho­analy­sis until they have been in psy­chother­a­py first.

    The patient meets with the ana­lyst 4–5 times per week in 45 minute ses­sions. The aver­age length of an analy­sis is 4 years.

    Peo­ple who go into analy­sis are usu­al­ly edu­cat­ed, and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly mind­ed. They have suf­fered for a long time, and less­er treat­ments have failed. These days, med­ica­tion can be used with ana­lyt­ic patients–which has only been true for the last 20 years or so. This means a broad­er range of peo­ple can be seen in analysis–which includes sick­er ones.

    There are dif­fer­ing opin­ions on this, but psy­cho­analy­sis is a more intense, deep­er therapy–but sim­i­lar issues are also dis­cussed in psy­cho­dy­nam­ic psy­chother­a­py.

    The aver­age num­ber of ses­sions spent in psy­chother­a­py is 10. Obvi­ous­ly, most peo­ple are not inter­est­ed in a psy­cho­analy­sis either because it does­n’t apply, or because it requires too much emo­tion­al and/or finan­cial com­mit­ment.

  • Edward says:

    Psy­cho­analy­sis has nev­er been seen as a pseu­do­science. As a mat­ter of fact, you walk into any uni­ver­si­ty upper lev­el psych class, and they will speak of just how intu­itive­ly cor­rect Sig­mund Freud was.

  • Bill says:

    As a psy­chol­o­gy stu­dent, I am very con­cerned about the num­ber of peo­ple respond­ing that Freud’s ideas are an accu­rate sci­ence. While he had some valid con­cepts, gen­er­al­ly when some­one in a psy­chol­o­gy class­room tries to describe some­one’s behav­iors as moti­vat­ed by the Oedi­pus Com­plex, penis envy, or the Death Dri­ve, in all but the most rad­i­cal of cas­es it is met with laugh­ter.

  • Andrew says:

    @Bill, I don’t see many folks advo­cat­ing that psy­cho­analy­sis is a sci­ence above; some folks are dis­tin­guish­ing sci­ence from art, and a cou­ple men­tion the util­i­ty of the ideas them­selves, but I don’t see any argu­ment that psy­cho­analy­sis is a sci­ence. Of course, the dis­tinc­tion itself is heav­i­ly ide­o­log­i­cal. From your tone, I’d say you lean pret­ty hard toward pos­i­tive sci­ence, and you feel like psy­chol­o­gy sits square­ly in that field (while many oth­er pos­i­tive sci­en­tists con­sid­er psy­chol­o­gy, itself, rather prob­lem­at­ic, and bet­ter cat­e­go­rized as social sci­ence, much like eco­nom­ics where­with a sim­i­lar strug­gle ensues, as does the broad­er strug­gle between the pos­i­tive and social sci­ences them­selves). Inso­far as you touch upon Edward’s com­ment, I think, again, you could read a bit more close­ly: call­ing ideas intu­itive is not to say that they can be trans­posed direct­ly from their con­text of enun­ci­a­tion into the con­tem­po­rary set­ting of an uni­ver­si­ty lec­ture hall or sem­i­nar room. Indeed, the vari­ance amongst uni­ver­si­ties in gen­er­al, and on the ques­tion of psy­cho­analy­sis in par­tic­u­lar, would pre­clude a uni­tary state­ment on the con­di­tion of that dis­cur­sive for­ma­tion con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly. With­out delim­it­ing the field more than even the space of the uni­ver­si­ty, one can scarce­ly offer a pro­duc­tive judge­ment on whether psy­cho­analy­sis is a rel­e­vant and pro­duc­tive epis­te­mo­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus, for whom, and ori­ent­ed towards what goals (what would con­sti­tute pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, here, in oth­er words). Part of being a stu­dent is enter­ing into a debate rec­og­niz­ing the dif­fer­ences of per­spec­tive, with­out suc­cumb­ing to the desire to pro­tect and defend at the slight­est whiff of chal­lenge…

  • Dr Clifford Brickman says:

    You might be inter­est­ed in our new book and Analy­sis of psy­cho­analy­sis with Freud’s first pub­li­cized case, lit­tle Hans.

    “Freud’s Fal­la­cy,
    Baby Hans–Carefully.”
    By Dr Clif­ford Brick­man
    and Rab­bi Jay Brick­man

    This ana­lyt­ic dia­logue also leads into an enhance­ment and advance­ment in Self psy­chol­o­gy — the organ­ic Self.

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