Sigmund Freud, a Most Negligent Practitioner

There are fashions in thought, as there are in dress, that appear bizarre to later generations. Such, surely, will be the fate of the prolonged fashion for psychoanalysis, a procedure still in vogue in countries such as France and Argentina. Never was such an edifice of theory built upon so slight a foundation of fact.

While in Paris recently I bought a brilliant book by an historian, Michel Borch-Jacobsen, Les patients de Freud (Freud’s Patients). In it he traces the fate of thirty-one of the great man’s patients. The result is so damning that I could not help but wonder whether the author’s attitude to Freud determined his evidence more than his evidence determined his attitude to Freud.

I think the latter. Freud emerges from these pages as an unprincipled scoundrel, a serial liar, a man whose egotism extinguished his regard for truth, and a most negligent practitioner, faults that no amount of talent or brilliance (both of which he had) can excuse. Nor does this list exhaust his vices.

Some of his mistakes, it is true, were caused by bad luck. For example, it was bad luck that the first description of a crisis of porphyria provoked by barbiturates was published by Hermann Breslauer, a friend of Freud’s first collaborator, Josef Breuer, only a few weeks after Freud’s patient, Mathilde Schleicher, died of such a crisis provoked by Freud’s prescription of barbiturates.

But Freud repeatedly claimed that his methods had cured patients when he knew perfectly well that they had not. This was a habit he developed early in his career.

Perhaps the most scandalous case is that of Ernst Fleischl von Marxow, a brilliant pathologist and physiologist who became a morphine addict after his thumb became infected during a post-mortem and was afterwards amputated. Freud had read in the Detroit Therapeutic Gazette that cocaine could be safely used to withdraw morphine from an addict, not realising that the Gazette was more promotional literature than medical journal (its editor, George S. Davis, was co-founder of the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company that manufactured… cocaine).

Freud treated von Marxow with both oral and sub-cutaneous cocaine, and then proclaimed – in print – that it had been a great success, though he knew perfectly well that von Marxow had remained addicted to morphine and became addicted to cocaine. And he never retracted his false claim, far from it.

More shocking still, Freud borrowed money from von Marxow, who was very rich, and then wrote to his own wife, ‘Perhaps he will no longer be here when we shall have to think of repaying him.’ Almost as bad was his response to an article by Albrecht Erelenmayer, who subsequently tried to treat morphine addiction with cocaine and reported failure. Freud replied that Erelenmayer failed because he used sub-cutaneous rather than oral cocaine, though Freud had done the same with von Marxow, and had even said so in print.

Why did Freud, a brilliant man, resort to this unscrupulous behaviour (to put it mildly)? I suspect that it was because he was so desperate for fame, preferably as a result of a dramatic coup, that he disregarded truth and scruple altogether. The story of Freud and von Marxow brings irresistibly to mind that of a certain triple vaccine and its supposed causation of childhood autism.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels.

5 thoughts on “Sigmund Freud, a Most Negligent Practitioner

  1. dearieme

    It’s worth pondering that The Man on the Clapham Omnibus always assumed Freudianism fake; it was intellectuals who fell for it.

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  2. jerym

    No doubt his use of these drugs were dangerous if not criminal but how does it reflect on the principals of psychoanalysis? Not a rhetorical question by the way.

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  3. Mary

    Most evidence that Freud cited for his psychoanalysis was faked or contaminated. This means it remains speculation — except that later scientists who actually subjected it to rigor found it unsupported.

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  4. Jason

    Freud has interested me about as much as has Alistair Crowley;very little that is, though I recognise the former has had far greater influence and was surely an important figure.
    I went to a talk by… By a nobody, an author of a book about Freud or psychoanalysis more generally. He seemed to be fairly generous about Freud, I wasn’t impressed, and even less so when he expressed contempt toward Viktor Frankl (perhaps not entirely without justification).

    Much ado about ‘nothing’
    The Oedipus complex what I understand of it is rightly derided but Freud was utterly spot on about at least one thing – the fundamental role of ‘nothing’ in the human condition, pity the men and women on the London Underground didn’t take this fact more seriously, Shakespeare certainly did, his plays are virtually all much ado about ‘nothing’.

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