Josef Breuer, Precursor Of Psychoanalysis

Josef Breuer was a rigorous researcher who made important contributions to medicine and physiology. He was a teacher and friend of Sigmund Freud and contributed to the birth of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Josef Breuer, forerunner of psychoanalysis

Josef Breuer was an important physician and physiologist who played a decisive role in the birth of psychoanalysis. He met and became friends with Sigmund Freud, who considered him a kind of father figure towards whom he felt great affection and respect. The admiration and friendship were mutual.

Breuer wrote with Freud part of the first edition of Studies on Hysteria , considered the founding text of psychoanalysis. He was also the first to assist the famous Anna O, the first patient treated with the psychoanalytic method after he referred her to Freud’s treatment.

It was this extraordinary Austrian doctor who discovered the relationship between breathing and body temperature, as well as that between hearing and balance. He is also considered the creator of the cathartic method, precursor of the free association method used in psychoanalysis. But let’s go step by step, and retrace the stages of his life in such a way as to better understand the scope of his discoveries.

Black and white photograph of Anna O, Josef Breuer's patient
Anna O.

Josef Breuer’s early life

Josef Breuer was born in Vienna (Austria) on January 15, 1842. His father was an important figure in Judaism, a religion that Breuer never actively professed, but nevertheless never abandoned.

His mother died when Josef Breuer was just 4 years old. He was then entrusted to the care of his father and maternal grandmother. In 1859, at the age of 19, he began his medical studies at the University of Vienna. There, he was a pupil of great scientists of the time, such as Karl Rokitansky and Josef Skoda.

He studied under the guidance of Johann Ritter von Oppolzer, a famous medical internist from Vienna. He took him with him as an assistant at the Vienna General Hospital. Later, he was admitted to the physiology laboratory of Ewald Hering, who was developing his studies on perception at the time.

In the laboratory, he discovered the function of the pneumogastric nerve (or vagus nerve) in the thermal regulation of the body, through breathing. This discovery gave Breuer great recognition in the medical field. Later, he continued his research coming to establish the relationship between hearing and balance.

The meeting between Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud

In 1871, Josef Breuer decided to devote himself to private medical practice. He had illustrious patients such as Franz Bentano and Johannes Brahms. He alternated medical practice with research and teaching at the Institute of Physiology of the University of Vienna, where in 1877 he formed a great friendship with one of his students, Sigmund Freud.

Around the end of the 1870s, Josef Breuer began to be attracted to psychology. In fact, he showed great interest in hypnosis, a technique very popular at the time. His patients were mostly wealthy women with hysterical symptoms. From here, his interest in psychic phenomena probably arose.

Freud shared the same interests and, perhaps thanks to these, they became great friends. Breuer lent him a substantial sum of money so that the father of psychoanalysis could start his private business. In addition, she guided him in starting a medical career. Without realizing it, each in his own way became specialists in mental disorders.

Portrait of Freud

Anna O and hysteria

Josef Breuer began to take care of the patient who went down in history with the name of Anna O. He subjected her to hypnosis sessions, obtaining excellent results. However, she began to show special affection for him, which ended up annoying the doctor. The professional relationship reached an irreconcilable breaking point when Anna O deliriously declared that she was expecting Dr. Breuer’s son.

It was then that Breuer assigned the case to Freud and this would have represented a decisive moment in the theoretical and practical development of psychoanalysis. However, it also represented the breaking point in the relationship between the two Austrian doctors. Eventually, Freud came up with his definitive theory of hysteria, which Breuer did not agree with.

In the meantime, he asked Freud for the money he owed him. The latter was very sorry and this, in addition to the theoretical differences he already had with his mentor, caused a further cooling of their friendship. However, it should be noted that Breuer never ceased to follow the developments of his brilliant student.

Upon Breuer’s death in 1925, Freud sent a message of condolence to his son. And he replied by citing his father’s interest in the progress of psychoanalysis. Freud, in turn, replied: “What you wrote about your father’s relationship with my work is unexpected to me, and it acted like a balm on a painful and never closed wound.”


Thus, with a little bitterness in the mouth, one of the most fruitful friendships of the time ended. The admiration never faded; but the differences, over time, became so strong as to make them move away.

Currently, both scholars are the object of study and recognition, although Freud’s name recurs more even in the most popular fields. We must not forget, however, that Josef Breuer was an absolutely decisive figure for the birth of psychoanalysis.

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