Cocaine was once touted as a “miracle drug” by the medical community. Sigmund Freud was an early user of the drug before his use caused harm to one of his own patients.

Sigmund Freud was one such early researcher of, and personal experimenter with, cocaine.

He published research referred to as the Cocaine Papers on the drug’s benefits and used it personally for many years.

Although Sigmund Freud did write about addiction in general terms, his theories aren’t as well-developed as those for which he is more well-known. It’s a matter of speculation as to whether Freud himself was addicted to cocaine.

Cocaine comes from the coca plant, native to some regions of South America. The drug was first isolated from the plant by researchers in the mid-1800s, but didn’t become widely known medically until the early 1880s.

At that time, some doctors were conducting medicinal experiments with the drug without knowing of its devastating side effects and potential for addiction.

Scholars have concluded that Freud likely first used cocaine while employed at the Vienna General Hospital in the early 1880s. He allegedly began using the drug to help with his nasal lesions.

Freud had become aware of cocaine by reading a paper by a German army physician, Theodor Aschenbrandt, according to a 1965 article published in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly. Aschenbrandt used the drug to treat soldiers suffering from exhaustion

At the time, Freud was thought to be looking for a new research area to make his own professional reputation. Cocaine, then known as coca, wasn’t illegal and Freud was able to get a sample of the drug.

Freud’s letters to his fiancée

On June 2, 1884 Freud wrote a love letter to his fiancée, Martha Bernay, to express his experience with the drug.

Freud wrote, ” 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.”

Further stating, “In my last 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 the magical substance.”

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In 1885, Freud published a paper extolling the virtues of cocaine. His work, “On Coca,” claimed that cocaine could have a variety of medical uses.

By 1895 Freud was still regularly using cocaine, in part to relieve his depression. He’s thought to have stopped using it sometime in the 1890s after he nearly killed one of his own patients while under the influence.

Freud wasn’t the only doctor to write about cocaine in positive terms. According to a 2015 piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, an 1892 publication spent only three pages documenting cocaine’s potential for harm and 240 pages discussing the drug’s therapeutic virtues.

Although it remained legal in the U.S., people became increasingly aware of its addictive potential. A newspaper report from 1898 called the growing addiction problem the “cocaine monster.” By the early 1900s cocaine was in many unregulated consumer products like tonics and sodas.

In 1912 U.S. pharmacists called for restrictions on the sale of cocaine and the substance was outlawed with the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914.

Freud wasn’t known to use any other drugs besides cocaine. But Freud was a heavy smoker and therefore may have had what observers would term an addiction to nicotine.

Freud smoked 20 cigars a day according to a 2004 paper about his oral cancer diagnosis and eventual death. The paper states he received a diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma of the palate in 1923 and had 34 surgical procedures before his death in 1939.

It can’t be conclusively stated that Freud himself had a substance use disorder or lived with what modern-day observers might call an addiction to cocaine.

But medical historian Howard Markel, who wrote a biography on the cocaine use of Freud and William Halsted, another medical pioneer, claimed in a 2011 PBS special there were signs of overuse.

Markel claims that by 1895 Freud was using enough cocaine to experience chest pain and his nasal passages were so congested he needed surgery to open them so he could breathe.

A paper published in 2018 reviewed Freud’s medical records, specifically his diagnosis of oral cancer.

The paper noted that while the medical records attribute his condition to excessive cigar smoking, Freud’s 16-year survival wasn’t consistent with the prognosis of someone who would have had a malignant tumor at that time.

The authors conclude that Freud may not have had a cancerous tumor but instead a lesion from long-term use of cocaine.

Freud initially believed cocaine itself could cure some addictions. A close friend of Freud’s, Fleischl Marxow, lived with a substance use disorder after receiving prescription morphine for chronic pain due to a thumb amputation, according to Markel’s 2011 interview.

Freud recommended cocaine to his friend in an attempt to help him after reading a medical report that cocaine could help with morphine addiction. Freud took the death of his friend quite hard and this death led Freud away from using cocaine for treatment.

In general, Freud didn’t have a comprehensive theory of addiction. A 2020 review summarizes Freud’s scattered writings on addiction to say that he theorized that substance use might be a substitute for sexual impulses.

He would go on to say that, for some people, an oral fixation would develop into a tendency toward drinking and smoking. Freud wrote later substance use could be a way to avoid unpleasant stressors in life.

Cocaine was first isolated from the coca plant in the mid-1800s. In the 1880s, cocaine was unregulated, and many researchers were experimenting with its therapeutic and medicinal uses.

Sigmund Freud began using cocaine in the mid-1880s and wrote a series of papers on its benefits. He also wrote about his own experience with cocaine, and did case studies on himself as he wrote from a scientific perspective on his experience of cocaine.

Freud eventually stopped using the drug after he did harm to a patient, who was also his friend, while under the influence of cocaine. The drug was eventually made illicit in the U.S. in the early 20th century after its harms became more widely understood.

If you are in need of support…

There are many resources available now for people living with substance use disorder.

Contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP to find the support you need where you live.

For more information about therapy options, finding the right mental health professional, and tips on when to seek help, check out PsychCentral’s Find Help page.

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