Josef Breuer was a leading physician and physiologist who played a crucial role in the development of psychoanalysis. He was close friends with Sigmund Freud, who saw him as a father figure. The two men greatly admired and respected each other. The friendship was important to both.
Together they edited the first edition of Studies in Hysteria, the foundational work of psychoanalysis. He was also the first to treat Anna O., the patient who became famous for being Freud’s guinea pig for the psychoanalytic method. Breuer first met her but he forwarded her to Freud’s office.
This brilliant Austrian doctor also discovered the relationship between breathing and body temperature and between the inner ear and balance.
Historians also consider him the creator of the cathartic method, a precursor to the free association method of psychoanalysis. In this article, we will briefly discuss his life and the significance of his work.
The Early Life of Josef Breuer
Josef Breuer was born on January 15, 1842 in Vienna, Austria. His father was an important figure in the Jewish community. Although Breuer was never very religious, he also did not openly distance himself from Judaism.
Breuer’s mother died when he was only four years old. After his mother’s death, he was raised by his father and maternal grandmother. In 1859, at the age of 19, he began to study medicine at the University of Vienna. There he studied with some of the greatest scientists of the time, such as Karl Rokitansky and Josef Skoda.
He was also supervised by Johann Ritter von Oppolzer, a famous Viennese clinical internist. Von Oppolzer hired Breuer as his assistant at the Vienna General Hospital. Later he started working in a laboratory of physiologist Ewald Hering, who was researching perception.
In the lab, he discovered the role the vagus nerve, or wandering nerve, played in regulating body temperature through respiration. This discovery made him famous in the medical community. He also went on to explore the relationship between the inner ear and balance.
Josef Breuer’s meeting with Sigmund Freud
In 1871 Josef Breuer decided to open his own medical practice. He treated prestigious patients such as Franz Brentano and Johannes Brahms.
He divided his time between teaching and research in the Center for Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Vienna. Here he would become close friends with one of his students in 1877. That student’s name was Sigmund Freud.
Since late 1870, Josef Breuer has been drawn to psychology. He was very interested in hypnosis, which was very popular at the time. Some people believe his interest in mental health was sparked as most of his patients were wealthy women with symptoms of hysteria.
Freud shared many of the same interests and as time went on they became intimate friends. Breuer loaned Freud a significant amount so that the future father of psychoanalysis could set up his private practice.
He also advised him to study medicine. Their curiosity and interests led the two friends to unintentionally specializing in mental disorders.
Anna O. and hysteria
Josef Breuer was the first to work with a patient named Anna O., who would eventually make history through her work with Sigmund Freud.
Breuer used hypnosis to treat her and they made good progress. However, Anna O. was quite fond of her doctor, which made him uncomfortable. Their professional relationship ended when a delirious Anna O. claimed she was the child of Dr. Breuer was going to give birth.
Breuer decided to refer his patient to Freud, a step that had consequences for the theoretical development and implementation of psychoanalysis. It was also the event that would eventually destroy the friendship between these two famous Austrians.
When he was done with Anna O., Freud was ready to publish a definitive theory of hysteria. Breuer, however, did not agree with Freud’s theory.
End of a friendship
One of the signs that their relationship had deteriorated was that Breuer asked Freud to repay the money he owed him.
On top of the theoretical disagreements they already had, this essentially destroyed what was left of their friendship. However, it is worth mentioning that Breuer has never stopped following the career of his brilliant student.
When Breuer died in 1925, Freud sent his condolences to Breuer’s son. His son replied that his father had never lost his interest in Freud’s work and advances in psychoanalysis. Freud replied, “What you said about your father’s relationship with my later work is news to me and heals a painful wound that never healed.”
Thus one of the most fruitful relationships of the time came to a bittersweet end. Their mutual admiration for each other never ceased, but their differences were stronger than their friendship.
Today, both men are known, although the name Freud is better known to laymen. Yet it is important to remember the essential contributions Josef Breuer has made to the field of psychoanalysis.