The pioneering psychoanalyst suffered so greatly in his last years that his death comes as a great relief to his friends
At midnight, September 23-24, 1939, Sigmund Freud died in London in his eighty-fourth year.
His death came as a great relief to those who knew how the cancer which had afflicted him for sixteen years and which had necessitated operation after operation and caused him constant unalleviated pain had within recent months extended beyond the reach of surgical or radiological relief. It is an eloquent, though incidental, testimony to the heroic qualities of the man that during all this period his only medication was an occasional tablet of aspirin. Only within the last few hours of his life was any morphine administered, and despite incredible suffering, to which was added the sorrow of exile and the loss of many friends, he had continued to see his patients and to work on his manuscripts until a few weeks before his death.
The solemn magnificence of this brave and losing battle of an indomitable spirit with an inexorable physical process reflects at the same time the theme and the vitality of his lifework. His greatest concept was that of the instinctual conflict between the will to live and the wish to die, the life forces and the death forces. In his early years he passed productively and brilliantly through the phase of laboratory interests and then through that of clinical medicine (neurology), and made great and lasting discoveries in each of these fields. But he was not satisfied with these; he became interested in the more fundamental factors that served to determine not only disease but health, not only symptoms but behavior, not only pain but sorrow. And for the next three decades of his life he studied the phenomena of what he later called the life instinct, which shows itself most directly in the impulse to love and to reproduce. For this he was reproached and ridiculed by those many for whom the conventional attitudes of hypocrisy, prudery, and salaciousness impelled the relegation of sexuality to the role of a dirty and inconsequential incident of unfortunate biological necessity. When as the result of indefatigable patience and unflinching courage he had gained for his views the recognition and acceptance of scientific leaders, he turned to the consideration of the malignant force which battles against this life instinct. Man, he said, is his own worst enemy; warring constantly against the instinct to live and to let live, to love and to create, is an instinct which has as its object the return to inorganic insensibility; it is this instinct in the direction of death from which arise our hates, our bitterness, our suffering, our sicknesses, and our demise. This concept of hate aroused the same resistances and refutations as had his earlier concept of love, despite such frightful confirmations of it as the activities of the Third Reich.
It is a presumptuous thing to comment on the life of a genius upon the occasion of his death. Freud is not a man about whom one can write a few casual words, a few comments of praise, a few notes of criticism and feel that an appropriate gesture has been made to his passing. For Freud was not an ordinary man; he was not an ordinary scientist. He was so nearly unique an individual that it is difficult to find anyone with whom to compare him. No one in the field of psychology ever attained to a fraction of his stature. Among medical scientists almost none can be said to have approached him in brilliancy, originality, or influence upon medical practice. Perhaps no other one individual in the field of science, lived to see the thinking of the entire world so profoundly modified by his discoveries within his lifetime as did Freud. Galileo, Dalton, Lavoisier, Darwin, these and others contributed discoveries which greatly modified our thinking and our ways of living, but the effect was more gradual in its permeation. For not only medical science and psychological science and sociological science, but literature, art, anthropology, pedagogy, and even popular speech show the influence of Freud’s discoveries and show them in unmistakable terms.