Sigmund Freud - Biography and Other Biographical Studies

Freud and the "Cocaine Episode"

by Jean Chiriac

There is a certain interest in the cocaine episode in Freud's life. The explanation lies in that cocaine belongs to the group of prohibited substances today and sensation mongers imagine Freud's association with cocaine might reveal outrageous private secrets!

Freud's personality continues to exert it's fascination to this day, and even to a greater extent than his very work, but public interest is not so much determined by a justifiable desire to know as mostly by the hope to discover a few sensational elements in the master's biography. People imagine that the presence of a cocaine episode in Freud's life could be an indication of a drug addicted Freud. On the other hand, the need to demolish great personalities with a decisive influence on western culture seems to be irresistible. Hence the careful pursuit for biographical details that might prove an active support to this odd need. Freud's relationship with cocaine nevertheless does not satisfy either spicy biographical details mongers or slanderers. The following is an outline of this aspect.


The truth is that Freud was a cocaine user indeed. Only that cocaine was not prohibited during his time, but prescribed and used as an euphoric. The harmful side of the substance had not been discovered yet. The fact that famous beverages such Coca-Cola contained coke extract is quite telling! Cocaine addiction and its harmful effects were only discovered later. Freud therefore used cocaine as a stimulus, something to help him manage his depression, achieve a state of well being, and relax under tense circumstances.

Cocaine also had medical advantages for Freud. He started his research in this field concerning the impact of cocaine on medicine, on minor surgery to be more precise. This is what he himself tells us about his endeavor: "In 1884, a side but deep interest" - Freud mentioned in his biography - "made me have the Merck company supply me with an alkaloid quite little known at the time, to study its physiological effects. While engrossed in this research, the opportunity for me then occurred to make a trip to see my fiancée, whom I had not seen for almost two years. I then quickly completed my investigation on cocaine and, in the short text I published, I included the notice that other uses of the substance will soon be revealed too. At the same time, I made an insistent recommendation to my friend L. Konigstein, an eye doctor, to check on the extent to which the anesthetic qualities of cocaine might also be used with sore eyes. On my return, I found that it was not him but another friend of mine, Carl Koller (now in New York), who, after hearing me talking about cocaine, had in fact made the decisive experiments on animals' eyes and had presented his findings at the Ophthalmology Congress in Heidelberg. That is why Koller has been rightfully considered as the discoverer of cocaine-based local anesthesia, which has become so important in minor surgery..."

A Vienna magazine had indeed published Freud's technical article "On Cocaine" in 1884. The detail of Koller's becoming so reputed in the field is concerned with the following circumstance: Freud had run into a colleague of his who was complaining of intestinal pain and had recommended him a 5% cocaine solution which caused the "patient" a feeling of numbness in his tongue and lips. Koller had witnessed the event and Freud was certain it was then that Koller had found about the anesthetic qualities of the drug.

The fact that Freud had so closely missed scientific celebrity with the publication of his findings about cocaine cannot shroud a tragic event he does not mention in his biography. His research of cocaine effects was also due to a personal reason. He hoped cocaine might help his friend von Fleischl-Marxow, who had become a morphine addict, as result of attempts to soothe the pains inflicted on him by an infection. Nevertheless, his friend's cocaine prescriptions proved fatal. "If only it had soothed his pain", Freud would exclaim in 1885. On the contrary, Fleischl-Marxow died a slow, painful death and the alleged remedy had done nothing but increase his suffering. He had become a cocaine addict, in the same way he had been a morphine addict, and ended in using very large quantities thereof.

*Translation by Mihaela Cristea.

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