This Day in Jewish History

1886: Sigmund Freud Opens a Psychiatric Office in Vienna, Nobody Comes

At first, the father of psychoanalysis was so frustrated by his lack of clients that he considered moving to New York.

Sigmund Freud and daughter Anna sitting at a table.
Corbis

On April 25, 1886, Sigmund Freud opened his first private office, in central Vienna. On that Easter Sunday he placed an ad in the Neue Freie Presse stating that “Dr. Sigmund Freud, docent for nervous diseases at the university, has returned from his study trip to Paris and Berlin and has consulting hours at Rathausstrasse No. 7, from 1 to 2:30.” It was two weeks before his 30th birthday.

Visitors to Vienna today interested in the life and career of the father of psychoanalysis can tour the museum at Berggasse 9, where Freud lived and worked from 1891 until his flight from the Nazis in September 1938. But it was during his five years at Rathausstrasse so called because city hall is a block and a half to the north that he began his transition from a researcher based in hospital laboratories to a practitioner using his clinical work to refine his theories about the unconscious and human psyche.

Sigismund Schlomo Freud (he changed the name to Sigmund at age 22) was born in the Moravian town of Freiberg on May 6, 1856. His father, Jakob Freud, was a wool merchant, and his mother, the former Amalia Nathanson, was Jakob’s third wife.

In 1859, the family moved to Leipzig, and the following year, to Vienna, where Sigmund would attend the Sperlgymnasium. Shortly before he began attending law school at the University of Vienna in 1873, he changed his course of studies to medicine, where he felt he stood a better chance of achieving the greatness he was convinced he was destined to.

Freud attained his medical degree in 1881. During his studies, he also served as a research assistant to Ernst Bruecke, an early pioneer in brain anatomy and Freud’s first great mentor. In 1885, after four years in a variety of research jobs, Freud completed his habilitation  certification of a level of post-doctoral achievement that led to his appointment as a docent at the University of Vienna.

Rathausstrasse in Vienna, 2009.
Wikimedia Commons / Buchhaendler

Freud not only had aspirations to professional achievement and fame, he also wanted to marry the woman he had been seeing since 1882, Martha Bernays, a granddaughter of the onetime chief rabbi of Hamburg. For this he needed a steady and significant source of income. But before hanging out his own shingle, he went abroad to do an internship with one of the most well-known physicians in Europe, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris.

Celebrity doctor

At the time, Charcot, the closest thing to a celebrity doctor France had, was studying the link between the widely diagnosed disorder of hysteria and the unconscious. And his work with hypnosis as a treatment for hysteria, though ultimately unsuccessful, yielded important insights on the connection between physiological symptoms and the psyche. (Charcot also was the first to propose that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, later called Lou Gehrig’s disease, was caused by the deterioration of nerve cells rather than hysteria.)

Leaving Paris at the end of February 1886, Freud spent a month at a clinic in Berlin studying childhood diseases. Back in Vienna, he was appointed head of the neurological section of a private children’s clinic, at the same time that he opened his clinic.

This was his first experience working outside a hospital setting, and it took time before patients began arriving.

Fortunately, friends and mentors such as Josef Breuer referred patients to him, but even then, according to biographer Margaret Muckenhoupt, Freud was so frustrated enough by his lack of clients that he considered moving to New York. He was deterred from that idea, however, when a friend remarked that the only work he would find there was waiting tables.

The following September, after friends and colleagues had helped him financially, Freud finally married Martha Bernays. They lived at Maria Theresienstrasse 8, where the first three of their six children were born. Then in September 1891 they moved to the Berggasse address, in Vienna’s Ninth District, where Freud had room for both residence and office.