Excerpt on Freud


PageLines- freud.jpgIn the days immediately following his initial “cocaine success” with Fleischl-Marxow, however, Freud was absolutely convinced that cocaine would prove to be a valuable therapeutic for addiction, depression, and neurasthenia, an exhausting condition defined by late-nineteenth-century physicians as an ambiguous type of nerve-cell fatigue. It was, unfortunately, an erroneous theory he would hold for sometime even after Fleischl-Marxow’s descent, and with strikingly bad results. Soon after administering the first restorative doses to his friend, Sigmund set out to write the definitive monograph on cocaine. This project was conducted with the encouragement of the temporarily stable Fleischl-Marxow, who insisted that Sigmund get his findings into print as soon as possible.

In order to produce more scientific data, however, Sigmund needed more cocaine. Consequently, he made a significant monetary investment by ordering a gram of cocaine hydrochloride from the Merck Company of Darmstadt. Like its American counterpart, Parke, Davis and Company of Detroit, Merck advertised its product with authoritative reviews on cocaine that were widely distributed to German physicians and, a few months later, American doctors. In one 1884 publication, for example, Merck methodically describes cocaine’s molecular structure, chemical properties, and physiological effects in animals ranging from puppies to humans, stipulating that all of the experiments reported , “without exception,” were conducted using “’Cocain mur. Solut. Merck,’” and noting that “only for these are the doses and action, as above stated, to be relied upon.” Before long, Dr. Freud became a regular customer of the Merck firm.

Even if Sigmund did not appreciate cocaine’s addictive properties, he did quickly realize that it was an expensive drug. Budgeting 33 kreuzer (nearly $3 in 2010) for his first cocaine purchase, the pfennig-pinching Sigmund was astounded when he received a bill from the Merck firm for 3 gulden, 33 kreuzer (roughly $30 in 2010). This sum represented a huge outlay for Freud. As a Sekundararzt, he earned 30 gulden a month (a little more than $90 in 2010), which barely covered the cost of his meals. Additional expenditures would have to be covered by tutoring whining medical students who could not or would not commit their studies to absolute memory with rapid recall, a task that paid 3 gulden an hour. When he received his first shipment of the cocaine in late April 1884, Sigmund allayed his financial worries by immediately ingesting 200 milligrams mixed into a glass of water. His bad mood was instantly transformed into one of cheerfulness and gave him the rare and incomparable feeling “that there is nothing at all one need bother about.”

Like many inquiring doctors of his generation, Freud grounded his scientific studies by experimenting on himself. After consuming few doses of cocaine, he was hopelessly enamored by its ability to cure indigestion, soothe aches and pains, and, perhaps more important, relieve depression and anxieties. Freud even purchased some to distribute to his friends, colleagues, and sisters. In May 1884, he sent several doses of cocaine to his fiancée to “make her strong and give her cheeks some color.”  Around the same time, Sigmund expressed to Martha his high expectations for the drug and what it would do for his patients, his career, and their lives together:

If all goes well I will write an essay on it and I expect it will win its place in therapeutics by the side of morphium and superior to it. I have other hopes and intentions about it. I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion and with the most brilliant of success. I hope it will be able to abolish the most intractable vomiting, even when this is due to severe pain; in short it is only now that I feel I am a doctor, since I have helped one patient and hope to help more. If things go on in this way we need have no concern about being able to come together and to stay in Vienna.

A few weeks later, on June 2, 1884, Sigmund exhibited both concern for Martha’s poor health and evidence of the drug’s sexually thrilling effects. He also demonstrates a loquacious, if not reckless, style of writing he adopted when under the influence during this period:

Woe to you, my Princess, when I come, I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body. In my last severe depression, I took coca again, and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.

During the summer of 1884, and after, Freud wrote many more cocaine-fueled encomiums to his fiancée. No matter what the reason, the need for relief from a migraine or a stomachache, an attack of sinusitis, the lows of his melancholia, or simply to daydream about his beloved Martha, Sigmund continued to use cocaine to make bad days good and good days better. The turmoil and uncertainty that framed his professional and romantic life demanded a potent tonic to calm his state of agitation and restore the stamina he desperately needed to make history. Ever sneaky and seductive, cocaine appealed to his psychic needs at his most vulnerable moments. And as his use of cocaine progressed, he physically required more of the stuff to satisfy his brain’s urgent pleas.

Between April and July 1884, the young neurologist completed what would become Über Coca, (On Coca), a treatise filled with adulatory descriptions of the “magical drug” and his “most gorgeous excitement.” Freud’s biographer Ernst Jones described the text as “a remarkable combination of objectivity with a personal warmth, as if he were in love with the content.”  Hyperbolic phrasing aside, the bulk of Über Coca is a well-written, comprehensive review of cocaine in concert with substantive, original scientific data on its physiological effects.

The monograph signals a striking shift in Freud’s scientific modus operandi. No longer is he content to work exclusively on laboratory animals or the brains of cadavers. He now begins to explore living human beings or, as he tells the reader of Über Coca: “I have carried out experiments and studied, in myself and others, the effect of coca on the healthy human body.”

Over the span of several weeks, Sigmund swallowed cocaine dozens of times, in doses ranging from .05 to .10 grams. From these experiences, he was able to compose an accurate précis of the drug’s immediate effects:

A few minutes after taking cocaine, one experiences a sudden exhilaration and feeling of lightness. One feels a certain furriness on the lips and palate, followed by a feeling of warmth in the same areas; if one now drinks cold water, it feels warm on the lips and cold in the throat. On other occasions the predominant feeling is a rather pleasant coolness in the mouth and throat.

In the pages that follow, the text becomes exclusively centered on how the drug altered his body and mind, including such effects as a rapid heartbeat, euphoria, and sleeplessness.

Prior to his cocaine studies, Freud’s scientific work had focused on the quantitative, fact-based research he conducted in the laboratory. What was the precise relationship of one anatomic structure to another? How did manipulating that structure alter its function in terms of measurable criteria such as blood pressure or heart rate? These were the questions upon which Sigmund and his medical peers typically confined their gaze, if they were to have any hope of publishing their work, let alone impressing their teachers and the medical world at large.

Yet the most striking feature of Über Coca is how Sigmund incorporates his own feelings, sensations, and experiences into his scientific observations. Throughout the monograph, Sigmund is careful to present his findings in a language that generalizes the experience for a medical audience. But the “n of 1” in these experiments, the “one” who experienced these effects, was clearly Sigmund Freud. When comparing this study with his previous works, a reader cannot help but be struck by the vast transition he takes from recording reproducible, quantitatively measurable, controlled laboratory observations to exploring thoughts and feelings. In essence, Über Coca introduces a literary character that became a standard feature in Sigmund’s work: himself. From this point on, Freud often applies his own (and later his patients’) experiences and thoughts in his writings as he works to create a universal theory of the mind and human nature. It was a method that for its time would prove scientifically daring, at times somewhat incautious, and, in terms of the creation of psychoanalysis, strikingly productive.

The cocaine study first appeared in the July 1884 issue of Centralblatt für die gesammte Therapie, a medical journal published by Verlag von Moritz Perles of Vienna. By midsummer, Freud saw a financial return on his intellectual investment in the form of an offer of 60 gulden from the American firm Parke, Davis to compare its product to Merck’s.