Biography of Josef Breuer
Josef Breuer was the son of Leopold Breuer (1791-1872), a liberal Jewish teacher of religion in Vienna. After the death of his mother when he was four years old, he was raised by his maternal grandmother. At the age of eight he entered the Akademisches Gymnasium of Vienna, where he passed the Abitur – high school graduation – in 1858. He then attended the University of Vienna for one year of general studies, before entering the university's medical school in 1859. He graduated in l864.
After defending his doctoral thesis in 1867, Breuer immediately became assistant to the internist Johann Ritter von Oppolzer (1808-1871) at the medical clinic in Vienna. In this position he undertook research on the physiological questions of temperature regulations of respiration.
When Oppolzer died in 1871 Breuer relinquished his assistantship and entered private practice. In this period he made epoch-making investigations into the anatomy and function of the inner ear, describing what is now known as the Mach-Breuer flow or shift theory of the endolymph of the inner ear. This research was the basis for his habilitation for internal medicine in 1875, when he received the "venia legendi" – the permission to teach as Privatdozent.
He gave up his venia legendi ten years later, probably both because of the high demands of his practice, and because he felt he had been improperly denied access to patients for teaching purposes.
In 1868 Breuer married Matilda Altmann and she bore him five children: Robert, Bertha Hammerschlag, Margaret Schiff, Hans and Dora. When faced with deportation by the Nazis, Dora committed suicide. Breuer’s granddaughter Hanna Schiff was killed by the Nazis. The remainder of his descendants live in England, Canada, and the United States.
Breuer had no pupils and no permanent affiliation with a university or institute, but he was one of the great physiologists of the nineteenth century. His first major scientific work – done with professor Karl Ewald Konstantin Hering at the Josephinum in Vienna – earned him eponymic fame. His next research was his long series of investigations of the function of the labyrinth, remarkable for their importance and even more remarkable because he conducted them privately, working in his own home and supported only by fees from his medical practice. In 1873 he discovered the sensory function of the semicircular canals in the inner ear and their relation to positional sense or balance.
The concept of Breuer’s psychological theory goes back to his treatment of Bertha Pappenheim, known under the pseudonym Anna O in his paper, a 21 year old and seriously disturbed woman showing a number of hysterical symptoms, in the summer of 1880. In treating her, Breuer invented his cathartic, or talking therapy. Freud became so fascinated with this case that he followed it in detail for many years, and later began using this "cathartic treatment" under Breuer's guidance. Breuer's treatment of Anna O was the first modern example of deep psychotherapy over a prolonged period of time. In 1893 Breuer and Freud summed up their joint explorations of this form of psychotherapy in Studien über Hysterie.
In 1896 Breuer and Freud separated and never spoke again. This seems to have been caused by disagreement over question of the reality of the memories of having been seduced in early childhood, which had occurred in many patients. However, despite the differences between the two men, their families remained in close contact.
Breuer was a man of broad cultural interests, friendly with many of the most brilliant intellects of his time. Among his friends were Ernst Mach, whom he had met at the time of their simultaneous work on the labyrinth.
Besides his activity as a physiologist and practitioner, Breuer also concerned himself intensively with philosophy and a theoretical foundation for Darwinism. His slogan was Spinoza's "suum esse conservare"– preservation of one self and one's nature.
Breuer was considered one of the best physicians and scientists in Vienna, and he was physician to many of the professors at the medical faculty, as well as Sigmund Freud and the prime minister of Hungary. He was elected to the Viennese Academy of science in 1894 upon the nomination of three of its most distinguished members: the physicist Ernst Mach and the physiologists Ewald Hering and Sigmund Exner. In 1894 he was appointed Corresponding Member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences.
Breuer's life is the fictive basis for the best selling novel "Und Nietzsche weinte" by Irvin Yalom.