We owe to Freud fundamental concepts such as the psychic unconscious, sexual repression, and the method of psychoanalysis. One thing for which he is probably less famous is his role in the recreational dissemination of cocaine. In 1884, a dangerously ambitious young Freud discovered cocaine and saw in this seemingly miraculous drug the path to fame, wealth, and recognition from his peers… but at what cost?
Freud was born in 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. From a young age, it was evident that the child would be a genius. Freud’s mother met an old woman in a pastry shop who “prophesied” that he would be one of the brightest men of his time. Freud’s mother, Amalia, returned home and told her husband, “Jacob, Jacob, our child will be a genius!” From that moment on, the parents were convinced and placed their child on a pedestal from which he would never descend.
The Freuds were a Jewish family, but more importantly, a poor family. Jacob was a textile merchant, but in the 1850s, the textile industry was in crisis due to industrialization and globalization, leaving many unemployed. Jacob decided to move to Vienna for better opportunities. At that time, Freud was only four years old.
In their new home, Freud was the only child who had his own room, where he spent long hours reading anything he could get his hands on. Young Freud, known as Sigi, was a great enthusiast of mythology and dreamed of becoming a hero. Later, he would compare his work to that of a conquistador who had discovered a new continent. He hadn’t discovered anything. Philosopher Michel Onfray summarizes it thus: he stole almost everything from others.
Here, a word of caution is necessary. Writing a biography of Freud is inevitably polarizing. There are two schools of thought: the worshipers of Freud, who see him as the Messiah of psychology, and on the other hand, those who view him as a thief, a fraud, and a perverse cocaine addict. We will come back to this.
What is certain, however, is that Freud was ambitious and brilliant. When he entered university at the age of 17, he was already fluent in French, English, German, Spanish, and Italian. Even before turning 20, he was a workaholic. Initially, Sigi had chosen the path of law, but in 1873, he made a 90-degree turn toward medicine, a field undergoing significant upheaval at the time.
The prevalent issues of the day were neurasthenia and neurosis.
Let’s recall that we are in 1880, a time when people began to take an interest in the human brain, mental illnesses, anatomy, and neurology. All of this was new, or rather, the way of analyzing the body and mind was new. Scientific methods were slowly but steadily advancing, riding on the weakening influence of a declining Church.
The major ailment of the era was neurasthenia, a generic term that encompassed almost everything that went awry in households: depression, bipolar disorder, attention disorders, panic attacks, and many more. In short, the soul’s afflictions accompanying the rise of industrialization, the breakdown of families, increasing proximity among singles, and the stress of urban life.
It might not seem like it, but this marked a significant advancement in the fight against hysteria, a set of mental disorders previously believed to exclusively afflict females. Indeed, since ancient times, the term “hysteria” was used to describe women’s illnesses. It was thought that women were the only ones suffering from mental illnesses, and that these issues stemmed from the uterus. To solve the problem, hysterectomy, the removal of the uterus, was practiced. Charcot, Freud’s mentor in Paris, proposed the idea that mental illnesses could affect both sexes.
Fortunately, progress was made toward the end of the 19th century. Hysteria ceased to be discussed, and attention shifted to neurasthenia. The problem, however, was that no one exactly knew what neurasthenia was or what caused it. There were extensive debates and studies, but nothing definitive. Vienna, like Paris, was at the forefront of the most important research on the subject.
Drugged on Ambition
However, Freud is still too young to make his contribution. His first job at the university is in a laboratory. At the time, Freud is an anatomy specialist. He studies the nervous system of eels, making him the first researcher to discover the genital organs of eels.
For Freud, it’s not enough. He wants more. He feels trapped. At Vienna General Hospital, he secures a position as an intern, a kind of physician’s assistant. He works more than ten hours a day, adding two to three hours of intensive reading at home in the evening. He already has ten years of studies behind him, and in Vienna’s bourgeois and competitive environment, a major center for medical studies, he has another ten years ahead to make something of his life.
Not only does he look haggard, but poor Sigi is madly in love with Martha, a young woman his sister brought home one beautiful April evening in 1882. He falls in love immediately and sets out to court the young woman. Unfortunately, Martha’s mother doesn’t approve of him. It’s not surprising. Even back then, people said Freud was rude, impolite, and mean, and that he had many mood swings. We don’t know how Martha fell in love with him.
What is certain, however, is that Martha’s mother disapproves of the match, believing Freud is too poor for her daughter. The two young people end up getting engaged, but they hardly see each other for nearly six years.
So, Freud is frustrated in his ambitions, in his love, and probably also in his pants.
For him, the solution is simple: a scientific breakthrough. He must become famous with a revolutionary product that will save the world, cover him in glory, and allow him to marry his sweetheart.
One day, around 1884, everything changes when Freud comes across a document that will turn his life upside down. A German doctor writes that he conducted a small experiment on soldiers. He gives them a highly stimulating substance that puts everyone in a good mood and allows all the troops to march without fatigue. Its name : cocaine.
Freud Popularizes Cocaine
It’s a “Eureka!” moment for Freud. He writes to his fiancée, saying, “With this, we can buy a house. Yes! Cocaine will make us rich!”
For Freud, it’s the discovery of the year. In the same year, he writes to his fiancée. On June 2, 1884, Freud writes, “Beware, my Princess! When I come, I will kiss you until you turn all red (…) And if you show disobedience, you will see who among us is stronger: the sweet little girl who doesn’t eat enough or the spirited gentleman with cocaine in his veins.”
In 1884, he writes “Über Coca” (About Cocaine), devoting only two lines to cocaine, stating that it anesthetizes the skin and mucous membranes where applied. Freud is young, ambitious, and wants to be famous. He quickly concludes that this property “should yield many more results.”
So, for Freud fans who doubt the role of cocaine in the development of psychoanalysis, here’s something to ponder: “Uber Coca” is Freud’s first document that put him on the world map. Yes, because upon its publication, two pharmaceutical companies of the time wrote to endorse cocaine: Merck and Park Davis.
Little is known about cocaine. It was only in 1857 that enough coca leaves were brought back in good condition to allow serious studies. The drug itself was isolated from the leaf around 1860. During that time, pharmacists and chemists had introduced a range of tonics made from alcohol and coca leaves.
Yet, the actual effects on the body and brain remained largely unknown. This didn’t stop Freud from having boundless faith in this miraculous drug. Very quickly, Freud does what all representative scientists of the time do. He tests it on himself.
Freud ordered a gram of cocaine from a local pharmacy called Angel’s and received it during the week of April 24th. Despite his concerns about the cost of the drug (he had miscalculated the quantity, and it ended up costing him a tenth of his monthly salary), the first thing he did was to take a twentieth of a gram himself.Cocaine: an unauthorized biography
The results were immediate: Freud felt much better about money, his research project, and life in general. He wondered if it could be useful in treating melancholy. Moreover, since it had suppressed his hunger, he thought it might be useful as a gastric anesthetic. Another promising area was the treatment of morphine addiction. If cocaine made people happy and eased their pains, perhaps they finally had something to combat morphine addiction?
The first cocaine addict?
It was the era of artificial paradises. All major European artists struggled with one addiction or another. Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter of Moulin Rouge posters, was under the influence of absinthe, a wormwood-based liqueur nicknamed the Green Fairy, popular among French soldiers traumatized by the war and returning from Algeria.
However, the worst was opium. Long before the fentanyl crisis, Europe experienced its first opioid crisis—a true epidemic. Opium became popular in Europe under the British Empire, which waged war against China to force it to buy opium. Chinese immigrants, who arrived in the United States en masse through California, brought opium with them. In Europe, the elite and the bourgeoisie quickly adopted the poppy nectar for recreational purposes.
Freud began recommending this drug to all his acquaintances, unaware that he was becoming a public danger. One of Freud’s colleagues took a keen interest in it. His name was Carl Koller. He was an ophthalmologist. But the researcher had a problem: he ran out of anesthetics. He had to operate on patients with their eyes wide open, strapped to the operating table with leather straps.
This was complicated because he had to numb the pain while keeping the patient conscious, instructing them to move their eyes during the operation. So, Freud showed the article to Koller, who promptly tested it on a patient’s eye, and it was a revelation. Unknowingly, Freud had solved one of the most significant problems in modern medicine: a reliable anesthetic.
When Brettauer read the article and demonstrated the anesthetic properties of cocaine at the congress on September 15, 1884, the result was stunned silence: Koller, a 27-year-old Viennese intern, had solved one of the most important problems in medicine. When Freud returned from Wandsbek, his friend had become an international celebrity. Freud was furious, but he knew it was his fault. How could he, who knew cocaine and anatomy so well, not see the anesthetic potential of the miracle drug?
The Fleischl-Marxow Incident: A Cure that Kills
While working at a Vienna hospital, Freud became friends with a young researcher named Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow. Ernst and Freud had much in common: they were both hardworking individuals with remarkable intelligence.
But Fleisch had a problem: he suffered every day from a thumb deformity that made his life a living hell. At the time, amputations were much less effective and far less hygienic. The amputation of his thumb had led to the constant regrowth of a cluster of nerves, causing Fleisch excruciating pain that kept him from sleeping. It was the researcher’s stoicism, Freud wrote in his correspondence, that drew him to Fleisch.
Freud, who had just discovered cocaine, thought: this could help my poor friend. Two weeks later, Von Fleischl believed he was cured. Freud proudly announced to his colleagues that cocaine had healed his friend. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Fleischl-Marxhov felt better for a while, but he started getting used to it and became a cocaine addict himself. Worse, he combined morphine and cocaine to prolong the euphoria.
After a few days of radio silence, Freud found the brilliant researcher collapsed upon himself in a semi-comatose state. The relapse was even worse than what Freud had previously treated. Fleischl returned to morphine, sinking into melancholy and oblivion. His best years were now behind him, and he took his own life six years later.
Freud somewhat ambiguously defended himself by saying that the problem was that his friend was taking cocaine orally, whereas cocaine injection is perfectly safe! But that’s a lie. We know, thanks to the publication of “Über Coca,” that Freud advocated for the hypodermic syringe, then a novel method.
The Nasal Reflex Necrosis and Its Solution: Cocaine
Freud meets Fliess in 1887 and forms a deep and tender friendship that will last until 1904, when the relationship definitively sours. As with almost all his mentors and colleagues, Freud goes from a honeymoon phase to declaring war. He himself acknowledges that he ends up turning every friend into an enemy.
Both Jewish, roughly the same age, and driven by ambition, they form a friendship, even a bromance, that reaches epic proportions in the 1890s. In his correspondence with Fliess, Freud literally flirts through his dear friend (at that time, Freud had suspended his physical relationship with Martha). For a while, the two men sport the same beard, haircut, and clothes of the same color, all to give the impression that they are twins.
Both of them explored unconventional research methods while consuming unimaginable amounts of cocaine. At that time, Freud had numerous theories that he would later disown. But Fliess also had wild ideas. When they met at conferences, in the euphoria of the white powder, they theorized about the most bizarre things, wholeheartedly believing in what ultimately were nothing more than hallucinations fueled by coca leaves.
One of Fliess’s theories was the “nasal reflex necrosis.” Fliess was convinced that the secret to all mental and physical problems lay in the nose. He also believed that the nose was directly connected to the genital organs, in a sort of nasogenital connection. Thus, the nose was also the key to sexual, mental, and neurological issues!
Freud was completely taken in and, probably under the influence of cocaine, supported his symbolic twin.
To explain what happened next, three things must be remembered: at this point, no one knew the real effects of cocaine, all doctors were full of bad ideas that cost thousands of lives each year, and Freud was completely dependent on cocaine. On June 12, 1895, he wrote to Fliess plainly stating, “I need a lot of cocaine.”
The stage was finally set for the worst mishap of his career. Freud was entrusted with a patient, Emma Eckstein, suffering from a multitude of problems ranging from chest pains to depression. Freud quickly diagnosed hysteria and excessive masturbation. He brought Fliess from Berlin for a nose operation. Fliess, confident after performing dozens of nasal surgeries, removed a piece of the young woman’s nose and cauterized the wound with cocaine. He took the opportunity to do the same for Freud.
For a few days, everything seemed fine for the young woman, and then suddenly, there was a hemorrhage. Emma started bleeding profusely, turning pale. It was too late to summon back Fliess, who had already left. Horrified, Freud asked another doctor to intervene urgently. He began digging into the dying woman’s nose and pulled out a medical dressing soaked in iodine several meters long that Fliess had forgotten in her nose! Unable to witness the scene, Freud fetched a glass of cognac while the unconscious woman finally began to stop bleeding. Irreparably disfigured, she would live half-paralyzed for the rest of her life.
Was Freud Really a Cocaine Addict?
Two schools of thought clash on this subject. Freud’s supporters, especially in France, historically downplay the role of cocaine, considering it at best as a youthful experiment during his formative years.
On the other hand, those more skeptical of the Freudian approach draw a direct connection between Freud’s excessive and impulsive habits and his regular consumption of cocaine between 1884 and 1896. It’s not precisely known when Freud ended his relationship with the drug, but it’s documented that his enthusiasm for the white powder waned in the early 1900s due to significant health complications that eventually cost him his life.
Medical historian Howard Markel asserts that by 1895, Freud was consuming enough cocaine to experience chest pains and his nasal passages were so clogged that he had to undergo surgery to open them up for breathing. This could explain Freud’s love-hate relationships with his friends and his sudden changes of ideas. As is often the case with cocaine addicts, he had a grandiose temperament.
In an essay that is both historical and controversial, David Cohen explores the shadows and vulnerabilities of Freud’s character, which he believes make him a perfect candidate for addiction: depressive, obsessive, sexually repressed, and unhappy.
Death by Morphine
The combination of tobacco and cocaine proved fatal for Freud. Smoking over 20 cigarettes a day, the psychoanalyst eventually developed mouth cancer in 1923. He was 67 years old, and his life was about to become a living hell.
In total, Freud underwent more than 30 jaw surgeries. To restore his mouth ravaged by the disease, he was fitted with a kind of metal prosthesis, which he affectionately called “the Monster.”
The combined consumption of cocaine and nicotine proved deadly. By snorting cocaine, Freud spent ten years needlessly constricting the blood vessels in his nose, leading to the formation of hard plaques of mucous membrane narrowing his nasal passages.
Around 1900, the addictive properties of cocaine became widely known, leading various governments to begin restricting and eventually banning its use outside of rare medical purposes (cocaine is still used as an anesthetic in otolaryngology).
In 1912, American pharmacists called for restrictions on the sale of cocaine, and the substance was prohibited by the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914. France, in turn, criminalized cocaine in 1916.
- The cocaine papers, Anna Freud
- “Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography” par Dominic Streatfeild (2003)
- “White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Lipton and His Revolutionizing of Tea” par Giles Milton (2005)
- “Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade” par Robert Sabbag (1976)
- “Cocaine: Global Histories” édité par Paul Gootenberg (1999)
- “An Anatomy of Addiction” Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine, par Howard Markel, 2000
- “Between Coca and Cocaine: A Century or More of U.S.-Peruvian Drug Paradoxes, 1860-1980” par Paul Gootenberg, 2001, The Woodrow Wilson Center
- “Sigmund Freud en son temps et dans le nôtre“. par Élizabeth Roudinesco (2014)
- “History of Coca: “The Divine Plant” of the Incas” par W Golden Mortimer (1901) J H Vail & Company
- “Riches from Potosi: The Silver of the Spanish Main” par Kris Lane (2021)
- “Freud, le moment venu”, Suzanne Leclair et William Roy (2023)
- N. Balier, “Freud et la cocaïne : du mythe à la réalité,” Revue Française de Psychanalyse, 66(2), 371-378, 2002.
- “Freud and His Biggest Addiction,” Psych Central
- G. Vighetto, F. Robert, and P. Kabengele, “Freud and Cocaine: A Fatal Attraction,” Front Psychiatry, 7, 61, 2016. Lien vers l’article