Sigmund Freud’s Sortie To America


In 1908 the American medical profession was becoming aware of a new method of treating mental disease. It had first been advocated during the 1890’s by two Viennese doctors, Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud. Breuer ceased to practice the method, but Freud had developed the theory on which it rested, had described its applications to everyday life in a number of books, notably The Interpretation of Dreams , and had become the center of a small group of supporters. A main contention of psychoanalysis, as Freud called his method, was that sexuality began in the earliest years of a human being’s life and that much mental trouble sprang from the repression into the unconscious of events connected with this natural instinct. The theory had aroused such opposition that Freud was surprised to receive late in 1908 an invitation from Stanley Hall, president of Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, to lecture on his controversial ideas at the university’s twentieth anniversary celebration the following year.

In New England and in the cities along the East Coast, where many of America’s important medical schools had grown up, the Puritan ethic was still strong. Years later the American doctor Weir Mitchell, whose rest cure Freud had prescribed for his patients during his early days in practice, was still happy to describe Freud’s writings by the single word filth. However, there was another side to the coin: within organized American psychiatry there was an underlying acknowledgment of much that lay at the heart of Freud’s theories. Samuel White, who had helped found the American Psychiatric Society, had said in an address on insanity in 1844: From the cradle to the grave man’s life will be found a series of antecedents and consequents, having a direct bearing on his physical and moral powers. To investigate the human mind, we must trace its history from its infant development, through manhood, to decrepitude.

Nor was it doctors alone who, long before Freud, were saying in general terms what he was later to say specifically. In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne had described how the Calvinist minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, was treated by his friendly physician who “strove to go deep into his patient’s bosom, delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing everything with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern.” Twenty years later Oliver Wendell Holmes, addressing the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard, went further. The more we examine the mechanism of thought, the more we shall see that the automatic, unconscious action of the mind enters largely into all its processes. Our definite ideas arc stepping-stones; how we get from one to the other, we do not know: something carries us; we do not take the step.”

By the 1890’s this idea was gaining ground in the area occupied by the psychologists and the psychiatrists. In 1894 William James noted how Breuer and Freud used hypnotism to work out repressed unconscious memories which he described in an apt phrase as “thorns in the spirit, and by the turn of the century he apparently had been fully converted. In the wonderful explorations by Binet, Janet, Breuer, Freud, Mason, Prince, and others, of the subliminal consciousness of patients with hysteria, he said in his Gifford Lectures of 1901–2, published as The Varieties Religious Experience: A Study in human Nature , we have revealed to us whole systems of underground life, in the shape of memories of a painful sort which lead to a parasitic existence, buried outside of the primary fields of consciousness, and making irniptions thereinto with hallucinations, pains, convulsions, paralyses of feeling and of motion, and the whole procession of symptoms of hysteric disease of body and of mind. Alter or abolish by suggestion these subconscious memories, and the patient immediately gets well.

While Freud’s critics and supporters were airing their views, a few men cautiously were beginning to experiment with the revolutionary ideas which had found their way across the Atlantic lrom Vienna. One was James Jackson Putnam, a Boston physician and professor of neurology at Harvard, who had begun to investigate psychoanalysis despite the warnings of his wife who had, his daughter later wrote, reacted with tragic bitterness, feeling that he had been mistakenly lured into a false path which would ruin his professional standing.

Putnam’s cautious support and the continuing criticism of other Americans was reported to Freud by Ernest Jones, a young Welsh doctor who had joined Toronto’s psychiatric clinic in 1908 and who had quickly begun to make forays across the border to gauge the standing of “Freudianism,” as it was soon to be called, in Boston and New York. Jones noted that while many doctors were sympathetic, ‘one must not hope too much however from it, for they are the only people in America at all interested in Psychotherapy & even they are so concerned in money-making as to do practically no original work or observations.