Sigmund Freud arrived in Hoboken, N.J., 100 years ago today on his first and only visit to the United States. He came to lecture on psychoanalysis and to receive an honorary degree from Clark University, in Worcester, Mass. It was, he said, “an honorable call,” a mark of his academic success. Freud was then 53 and had been practicing for 23 years.
At the time, most doctors here and in Europe still considered mental illness to be caused by “degeneration” of the brain. They assumed that there was little to be done for it beyond physical treatments like diet, exercise, drugs, rest and massage. But a growing awareness that the mind could influence bodily functions was giving rise to debates about the nature of the unconscious mind.
G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark and the first person to earn a doctorate in psychology from Harvard, invited American scientists to hear Freud’s ideas about the unconscious roots of mental illness. William James, the philosopher and psychologist, was among those who attended, as were other prominent academics, like Adolf Meyer, who would become perhaps the most important psychiatric educator in the first half of the 20th century, and Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology. Emma Goldman, the noted radical, who was also there, remarked, “Among the array of professors, looking stiff and important in their caps and gowns, Sigmund Freud, in ordinary attire, unassuming, almost shrinking, stood out like a giant among Pygmies.”
Speaking in German and without notes, Freud delivered five lectures covering the basic principles of psychoanalysis: hysteria and the psychoanalytic method, the idea that mental illness could arise from a person’s early experience, the importance of dreams and unconscious mental activity, infantile sexuality and the nature of transference.
When Freud learned that James would attend only one day, he chose that day to speak on the interpretation of dreams and the power of the unconscious. After the lecture, the two men spent more than an hour alone together. James would later express ambivalence about Freud’s ideas. “They can’t fail to throw light on human nature,” he wrote, “but I confess that he made on me personally the impression of a man obsessed with fixed ideas.”
While accounts of Freud’s visit have inevitably focused on this conversation with James, a less-known encounter with another prominent American scientist would become far more significant — for the two men and for the future of psychoanalysis in the United States. This person was James Jackson Putnam, a professor of neurology at Harvard and a leader of a growing movement to professionalize psychotherapy in the United States. Putnam and many other scientifically minded people were trying to counteract the growing influence of spiritual healers, who had been trying to treat the mentally ill with religious and mystical approaches. He had recently attended the first medical conference on psychotherapy, in New Haven.
After listening to Freud at Clark, Putnam invited him and the other psychoanalysts who had traveled with him to the United States — Carl Jung (who also lectured and received an honorary degree at Clark) and Sandor Ferenczi — to spend a few days at the Putnam family camp in the Adirondacks, after the group visited Niagara Falls. Freud marveled at Putnam Camp, “where we had an opportunity of being acquainted with the utter wilderness of such an American landscape.” In several days of hiking and feasting, Putnam and Freud cemented a strong bond.
It was, Freud would later write, “the most important personal relationship which arose from the meeting at Worcester.” Putnam lent his stature to Freud’s ideas, promoting the psychoanalytic approach as a way to reach those patients who had been considered incurable. “There are obvious limits to its usefulness,” Putnam wrote in 1910, “but nevertheless it strikes deeper than any other method now known to psychiatry, and reaches some of these very cases to which the terms degenerative and incurable have been applied, forcing us to recast our conception of these states.”
Talk therapy offered a message of hope, in contrast to the pessimism that came with theories of hereditary illness and degeneration.
Looking back on his trip a few years later, Freud wrote that it had been encouraging: “In Europe I felt as though I were despised; but over there I found myself received by the foremost men as an equal.”
Putnam would go on to become the first president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, in 1911. And psychoanalytic ideas would fairly rapidly become part and parcel of American culture and psychiatric education. Freudian terms like transference, the unconscious and the Oedipus complex entered the lexicon. And mental-health practitioners embarked on in-depth studies of their patients’ idiosyncratic life stories from childhood on. Thanks in large measure to Putnam’s work, psychoanalysis would become — and remain for 100 years — an ingrained and respected approach to treating mental illness of all kinds.
Leon Hoffman, a psychiatrist and a co-director of the Pacella Parent Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.