The Case of Dr. Sigmund Freud

The Case of Dr. Sigmund Freud
by Brecher

Through the centuries since Columbus, countless millions of smokers the world over have tried to stop smoking. Some have succeeded, many have failed. One of those who failed was Dr. Sigmund Freud.

In 1894, when Freud was thirty-eight, Dr. Jones reports, his best friend, Dr. Wilhelm Fleiss, informed Freud that his heart arrhythmia was due to smoking, and ordered him to stop. Freud tried to stop, or to cut down his cigar ration, but failed. "He was always a heavy smoker—twenty cigars a day were his usual allowance," Dr. Jones writes. "In the correspondence {between Freud and Fleiss} there are many references to this attempt to diminish or even abolish the habit, mainly on Fleiss's advice. But it was one respect in which even Fleiss's influence was ineffective."

Freud did stop for a time at one point, but his subsequent depression and other withdrawal symptoms proved unbearable.

Within seven weeks, Freud was smoking again.

On a later occasion, Freud stopped smoking for fourteen very long months. "Then he resumed, Dr. Jones reports, "the torture being beyond human power to bear."

More than fifteen years later, at the age of fifty-five, Freud was still smoking twenty cigars a day—and still struggling against his addiction. In a letter to Dr. Jones he remarked on "the sudden intolerance of {my heart} for tobacco."

Four years later he wrote to Dr. Karl Abraham that his passion for smoking hindered his psychoanalytic studies. Yet he kept on smoking.

In February 1923, at the age of sixty-seven, Freud noted sores on his right palate and jaw that failed to heal. They were cancers. An operation was performed—the first of thirty-three operations for cancer of the jaw and oral cavity which he endured during the sixteen remaining years of his life. "I am still out of work and cannot swallow," he wrote shortly after this first operation. "Smoking is accused as the etiology of this tissue rebellion." Yet he continued to smoke.

In addition to his series of cancers and cancer operations, all in the oral area, Freud now suffered attacks of "tobacco angina" whenever he smoked. He tried partially denicotinized cigars, but even these produced anginal pains and other heart symptoms. Yet he contnued to smoke.

At seventy-three, Freud was ordered to retire to a sanitariium for his heart condition. He made an immediate recovery—"not through any therapeutic miracle," he wrote, "but through an act of autonomy." This act of autonomy was, of course, a firm decison to stop smoking. And Freud did stop—for twenty-three days. Then he started smoking one cigar a day. Then two. Then three or four. . .

In 1936, at the age of seventy-nine, and in the midst of his endless series of mouth and jaw operatons for cancer, Freud had more heart trouble. "It was evidently exacerbated by nicotine," Dr. Jones writes, "since it was relieved as soon as he stoppd smoking." His jaw had by then been entirely removed and an artificial jaw substituted; he was in almost constant pain; often he could not speak and sometimes he could not chew or swallow. Yet at the age of eighty-one, Freud was still smoking what Dr. Jones, his close friend at this period, calls "an endless series of cigars."

Freud died of cancer in 1939, at the age of eighty-three. His efforts over a forty-five year period to stop smoking, his repeated inability to stop, his suffering when he tried to stop, and the persistence of his craving and suffering even after fourteen continuous months of abstinence — a "torture. . . beyond human power to bear" — make him the tragic prototype of tobacco addiction.


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