Sigmund Freud, a man of letters or the mind? Neither, according to the Nobel committees, which not only gave the father of psychoanalysis the cold shoulder but even criticised his work.
Freud went on to be nominated for a Nobel a total of 13 times until 1938, one year before his death in London.
His name was put forward 12 times for a Medicine Prize and once for a Literature Prize.
In 1937, no fewer than 14 prominent scientists, including several Nobel laureates, backed the nomination of the Austrian doctor, who liked to compare himself to Copernicus and Darwin.
But their support was in vain. Very early on, Freud “understood that he could never win a Nobel science prize. Psychoanalysis was already under attack as not being a science.
In 1929, professor Henry Marcus of the Karolinska Institute, home to the Nobel medicine committee, summed up the scientific community’s mistrust of Freud’s doctrine: “Freud’s entire psychoanalytic theory, as it appears to us today, is largely based on a hypothesis”, with no scientific proof that a neurosis can be traced back to the existence of a childhood sexual trauma — if a trauma even existed, he wrote in a document unearthed by Swedish academic Nils Wiklund in 2006.
Elisabeth Roudinesco, the author of the biography Freud, In his Time and Ours, agreed: “His critics were right about the Oedipus complex, because he had become dogmatic about that.”
But one cannot write off Freud’s entire body of work, she said, noting his important contributions to the study of the soul.
Faced with the Nobel science committees’ lack of interest in him, Freud’s close friend and translator Princess Marie Bonaparte of France tried to round up support for a Nobel Literature Prize instead.
Romain Rolland, the French novelist who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1915, was well-placed to nominate Freud.
On January 20, 1936, Rolland wrote to the Swedish Academy to propose Freud’s name.
Per Hallstrom, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy at the time, said: “He unquestionably also has a very good and natural literary style,” he wrote, before adding hastily: “Apart perhaps from the actual ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ on which his entire doctrine is based.”
Freud, he concluded, “should not be awarded any poet laurels, no matter how poetic he has been as a scientist”. Eighty years later, Odd Zsiedrich, the Academy’s administrative director, is a bit more diplomatic: “The competition was very stiff in 1936.”— AFP