Famous Migraineur: Sigmund Freud

Patient Expert

Often thought of as the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud was also a man who had Migraines. Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in Freiberg, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). Freud's father, Jacob married his third wife, Amalia Nathanson, 20 years his junior, after the death of his first two wives. Jacob had two older children from his first marriage who were similar in age to Amalia, when Freud was born. Jacob and Amalia went on to have seven more children, but Freud remained his mother's favorite. He changed his name to Sigmund when he was 22-years-old.

When Freud was four-years-old, the family moved to Vienna and lived in a heavily populated Jewish area called the Leopoldstadt slum. Freud went to Leopoldstadter Real-und Obergymnasium and did exceptionally well in his studies. His parents realized how gifted Freud was and allowed him to have his own bedroom during his school years, which was unique due to the cramped housing they lived in. He was 17-years-old when he entered the University of Vienna in 1873 and considered law as a profession for quite some time, but ultimately decided on medicine. In 1876, Freud was awarded a research grant to study eels and was enthralled with research. Freud received his medical degree in 1881 after an extended period of time because he hated to leave behind research and the lab.

In 1882, Freud met his future wife, Martha Bernays, and was immediately taken with her. The two wanted to marry right away, but Freud was too poor to support a family, so instead they got engaged, keeping it very private. Their engagement was extensive, and the couple spent most of the time apart, exchanging letters frequently, as was customary of the time period. According to Andrew Levy's book, A Brain Wider Than The Sky: A Migraine Diary, Freud writes to his beloved that he thinks "the Tartar sauce I had for lunch" may have contributed to his Migraine. They eventually married in 1887 and had six children together: Mathilde, Jean Martin, Oliver, Ernst, Sophie and Anna. Anna was the only child to follow in her father's footsteps, becoming the founder of child psychoanalysis.

While doing his residency at Vienna General Hospital during the mid 1880s, Freud began his investigation of cocaine, even using it to treat his Migraines. During one such treatment (which he called "cocainizing"), he found himself "so wound up that I had to go on working and writing and couldn't get to sleep before 4 in the morning." He worked in France with famed neurologist Jean Martine Charcot and quickly became fascinated with hysteria. When he returned to Vienna, he practiced neurology, working with prominent internist Dr. Joseph Breuer. Breuer's treatment of a hysteria patient using hypnosis helped her go back over traumatic symptoms she experienced during her father's death. Freud found this fascinating and used this technique in his own practice. Breuer and Freud published Studies on Hysteria, which contained information about specific cases, treatments and theory. Shortly thereafter, Freud and Breuer no longer share the same opinions.

Freud met Wilhelm Fliess, an ear, nose and throat doctor who became a very close friend in the late 1880s. He shared many personal and professional details of his life with Fliess, and headache was the main focus of many of their letters. At this time, nasal obstruction was thought to be the cause of headache, and Fliess operated on Freud trying to relieve some of his pain, which did not work. Fliess also suggested that Freud regard his Migraines as occasions that occur when significant life events happen. Freud was able to identify Migraine attacks that occurred after the death of one of his favorite sculptors and especially when one of his daughter's started her menses, saying it was "a migraine from which I thought I would die."

Freud moved his family to Berggasse 19, where they would live for 47 years. In 1894, The Neuro-Psychoses of Defense was published which emphasized Freud's feelings regarding the sexual cause of hysteria. Freud was firmly ensconced in the neurosis of both his patients and himself and began to analyze his own dreams in 1895. Four years later his Interpretation of Dreams was published. "Psychoanalysis" first shows up in 1896 and Freud continued to work developing his theories but depended less on hypnosis when treating patients. In 1901 he began analyzing "Dora," an 18-year-old hysteria patient and then published Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria in 1905. Also published the same year were Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Freud and Carl G. Jung started corresponding in 1906 and soon became close friends. Freud formed the Wednesday Psychological Society that year, which later became the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. In 1909, Freud was invited to lecture at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts where he accepted an honorary doctorate of law degree. In Peter Gay's The Freud Reader Freud said about his trip:

"...the new world encouraged my self-respect in every way. In Europe I felt as though I were despised; but over there I found myself received by the foremost men as equal."

Jung and Freud's relationship started to deteriorate after this trip and soon no longer spoke.

World War I broke out in 1914, and three of Freud's sons signed up for the army. The war raged on, but Freud continued to work publishing papers such as Thoughts for the Times on War and Death and From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, which was the case history of one of his patients he called "Wolf Man." After the war Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego was published and in 1923 he published The Ego and the Id.

Freud began to have problems with his jaw in 1923, thought to be from smoking, and was misdiagnosed with leukoplakia - an irritation or growth. The growth was removed but it was soon determined he had cancer and more painful operations were performed throughout his remaining years. In 1932 Freud exchanged letters with Albert Einstein and their writings were published together in Why War? By 1933, Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany and the book burnings began - including many of Freud's works.

The year 1936 was for Freud; he turned 80 years-old and celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary. His cancer recurred again in 1938, and he had yet another operation. As the Nazi invasion loomed, Freud refused to believe it would occur and remained in his home. As the violence increased in Vienna and Hitler took over, the last straw for Freud was when his daughter Anna was taken by the Gestapo. Thankfully, she was unscathed and let go the same night, but Freud, his wife, daughter Anna and remaining family members fled to London. While in London, he became increasingly ill and located his personal doctor Max Schur who promised him he would not let him suffer. True to his word Schur assisted Freud with morphine and he died on September 23, 1939, just after World War II started.

For information on other Famous Migraineurs, read:


  • Advameg, Inc. "Sigmund Freud Biography." Encyclopedia of World Biography.
  • Gay, Peter. The Freud Reader. New York, New York. W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.
  • Levy, Andrew. A Brain Wider Than The Sky: A Migraine Diary. New York, New York. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
  • Sigmund Freud Museum. "Sigmund Freud Chronology."
  • Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Sigmund Freud Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-1234]


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