On April 21, 1884, a 28-year-old researcher in the field now called neuroscience sat down at the cluttered desk of his cramped room in Vienna General Hospital and composed a letter to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, telling her of his recent studies: “I have been reading about cocaine, the effective ingredient of coca leaves,” Sigmund Freud wrote, “which some Indian tribes chew in order to make themselves resistant to privation and fatigue.
Less than a month later, Freud was writing to Bernays about the many self-experiments in which he had swallowed various quantities of the drug, finding it useful in relieving brief episodes of depression and anxiety. Later, he described how “a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature” — in German, French and English — “for a song of praise to this magical substance.”
That song of praise was “Über Coca,” a monograph published in July 1884 in a highly regarded journal. In his perceptive new book, “An Anatomy of Addiction,” Howard Markel points out that this landmark essay — Freud’s first major scientific publication — was in fact a turning point for the young scientist. “The most striking feature of ‘Über Coca’ is how Sigmund incorporates his own feelings, sensations and experiences into his scientific observations,” Markel writes. “When comparing this study with his previous works, a reader cannot help but be struck by the vast transition he makes from recording reproducible, quantitatively measurable, controlled laboratory observations to exploring thoughts and feelings. In essence, ‘Über Coca’ introduces a literary character that would become a standard feature in Sigmund’s work: himself. From this point on, Freud often applies his own (and later his patients’) experiences and thoughts in his writings as he works to create a universal theory of the mind and human nature. It was a method that for its time would prove scientifically daring, at times somewhat incautious, and, in terms of the creation of psychoanalysis, strikingly productive.”