Doctoring Freud

Freud: Living and Dying

by Max Schur
International Universities Press, 537 pp., $20.00

In 1915, while a medical student, Dr. Max Schur, the author of this latest biographical study of Freud, attended the course of lectures which were later published as the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. After qualification, he practiced internal medicine and in 1928 became Freud’s physician and, as such, responsible for the management of the aftereffects of the cancer of the maxilla which Freud had developed in 1923—and of the surgery with which it had been treated. With one short interval he remained Freud’s physician until the latter’s death in 1939, becoming in the meantime a psycho-analyst himself. After Freud’s death he settled in New York, publishing numerous papers, of which at least two can be regarded as biographical essays on Freud. He himself died 1969 after having devoted many years to the preparation of this book.

Schur was therefore uniquely placed to write a monograph on Freud’s last illness. Even though he only came on the scene five years after the diagnosis of cancer had been made and the crucial surgery performed he had, of course, access to the earlier medical reports and knowledge of the standing and professional reputations of the various physicians and surgeons who had already treated Freud. However, Schur decided not to confine himself to matters which came within his own personal experience and professional competence as a physician, but to embark on a much more ambitious project—a psychoanalytical study of Freud’s attitude to death and of his relationships with men (Freud’s “latent homosexuality,” in both his own and Schur’s terminology).

To my mind this decision of Schur’s was unfortunate, even though—in view of his intimate knowledge of Freud as a friend and patient and his interest in psychoanalytical theory—one can easily understand and sympathize with his reasons for making it.

My reason for regretting that Schur did not resist the temptation to venture on a full-scale psychoanalytical study of Freud is twofold. First, Schur lacked the literary skill which might have enabled him to marry successfully a clinical account of Freud’s illness and a human one of Freud’s courage and endurance in the face of suffering. The sheer accumulation of clinical detail given in Schur’s last ten chapters does indeed leave the reader, especially if he himself happens to be medically qualified, in no doubt that Freud both suffered appallingly and bore suffering with fortitude, but Schur’s shifts from writing a case report to writing a human document, and from biography to autobiography, also leave the reader exhausted and confused.

Nor, incidentally, is Schur altogether successful in handling two embarrassing facts which emerge from his account of Freud’s illness. Freud behaved unwisely, and arguably even irresponsibly, when he first noticed that he had a growth in his mouth; and he was himself responsible for much of his suffering, since many of his later operations were the result of his refusal to give up smoking. “Refusal” not “inability …

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Letters

Freud Dying November 30, 1972