The only known recording of Sigmund Freud’s voice

September 14, 2014 • 12:29 pm

It’s always exciting for me to hear a famous person’s voice for the first time, especially when that person was rarely recorded.  I remember when I first found out that there were lots of Dylan Thomas recordings (he’s one of my favorite poets); but I was disappointed when I heard him read his poems in a monotone. (His ensemble recording of “Under Milkwood,” however, is wonderful: go here, here, and here to hear the whole thing).

And below, from Open Culture, is the only extant recording of Sigmund Freud’s voice. No matter what you think of him (and I think he was pretty much of a quack pseudoscientist), it’s still thrilling to hear him. His voice is a bit higher than I would have expected.

The details from Open Culture:

On December 7, 1938, a BBC radio crew visited Sigmund Freud at his new home at Hampstead, North London. Freud had moved to England only a few months earlier to escape the Nazi annexation of Austria. He was 81 years old and suffering from incurable jaw cancer. Every word was an agony to speak. Less then a year later, when the pain became unbearable, Freud asked his doctor to administer a lethal dose of morphine. The BBC recording is the only known audio recording of Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and one of the towering intellectual figures of the 20th century. (Find works by Freud in our collection of 300 Free eBooks.) In heavily accented English, he says:

I started my professional activity as a neurologist trying to bring relief to my neurotic patients. Under the influence of an older friend and by my own efforts, I discovered some important new facts about the unconscious in psychic life, the role of instinctual urges, and so on. Out of these findings grew a new science, psychoanalysis, a part of psychology, and a new method of treatment of the neuroses. I had to pay heavily for this bit of good luck. People did not believe in my facts and thought my theories unsavory. Resistance was strong and unrelenting. In the end I succeeded in acquiring pupils and building up an International Psychoanalytic Association. But the struggle is not yet over.  –Sigmund Freud.

A bit about his demise: Freud smoked 20 cigars a day, and paid the price in heart trouble and 33 operations for cancer over the last 16 years of his life. At the end, he had no jaw left: just a prosthesis. He knew that cigars were the cause of his ills, but even the great analyst was powerless to stop. He was also addicted to cocaine. And he’s one of the most famous cases of assisted suicide in history.  He was too weak to stop smoking, but strong enough to ask the doctor to end his life.

From The Freud Page:

. . . two days after [Ernest] Jones‘s visit, on September 21, as Schur [Freud’s doctor] was sitting by Freud’s bedside, Freud took his hand and said to him, “Schur, you remember our ‘contract’ not to leave me in the lurch when the time had come. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense.” Schur indicated that he had not forgotten. Freud gave a sigh of relief, kept his hand for a moment, and said, “I thank you.” Then, after a slight hesitation, he added, “Talk it over with Anna, and if she thinks it’s right, then make an end of it.” As she had been for years, so at this juncture, Freud’s Antigone was first in his thoughts. Anna Freud wanted to postpone the fatal moment, but Schur insisted that to keep Freud going was pointless, and she submitted to the inevitable, as had her father. The time had come; he knew and acted. This was Freud’s interpretation of his saying that he had come to England to die in freedom.

Schur was on the point of tears as he witnessed Freud facing death with dignity and without self-pity. He had never seen anyone die like that. On September 21 [1939], Schur injected Freud with three centigrams of morphine – the normal dose for sedation was two centigrams – and Freud sank into a peaceful sleep. Schur repeated the injection, when he became restless, and administered a final one the next day, September 22. Freud lapsed into a coma from which he did not awake. He died at three in the morning, September 23, 1939. Nearly four decades earlier, Freud had written to Oskar Pfister wondering what one would do some day, “when thoughts fail or words will not come? “He could not suppress a “tremor before this possibility. That is why, with all the resignation before destiny that suits an honest man, I have one wholly secret entreaty: only no invalidism, no paralysis of one’s powers through bodily misery. Let us die in harness, as King Macbeth says.” He had seen to it that his secret entreaty would be fulfilled. The old stoic had kept control of his life to the end.”

For those interested in things medical, here’s an X-ray of Freud’s ravaged jaw, taken in 1939 (the year he died) from Exploring 20th Century London


and, for comparison, an X-ray of a normal skull:




46 thoughts on “The only known recording of Sigmund Freud’s voice

      1. Ant: I caught the original Radio 4 broadcast, intending to listen for a couple of minutes, but stayed for the whole 27, as well as listening again to the final joke.

  1. Freud’s thoughts about religion are attractive, but I have no use for him otherwise. See Frederick Crews’s wonderful take down of Freud from twenty years ago. His book “The Memory Wars” originally began as a controversial two-part essay for The New York Review of Books. He later edited a collection of essays called “Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend.”

  2. Imagine going through all those operations with early 19th C techniques??!! He must’ve been a hard ass. I was pissed off getting a crown on my tooth and they had to freeze the hell out of me!

    1. I think you mean early 1900s, not early 19th century. Freud didn’t get his first cancer diagnosis until 1923.

      It wouldn’t have been a picnic, but by then anesthetic, antisepsis, and even blood transfusion were part of routine surgical practice.

        1. Dubya has the mental insulation of the Kreuger-Dunning effect.
          At least, I think that’s the excuse that he’s spent over a decade setting up for himself.

  3. No matter what you think of him (and I think he was pretty much of a quack pseudoscientist)

    By modern standards, absolutely. But I do have to give him credit for advancing the proposition that the mind and its subjective experiences are a valid field for scientific study. It’s still a difficult problem today, trying to figure out how to objectively analyze the subjective, and, as far off base as he was, he made a valiant stab at it.


    1. It’s easy to point to how much Freud got wrong and forget how right he was on other things (the concept of the unconscious broadly construed). He was very dogmatic and did not accept correction well. Many of his successors (Otto Rank, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, etc.) felt he had laid a good basic foundation on which the subsequent structure needed a lot of modification, but the dude was stubborn.) Neuroscience had made very little advance in his time, but it was a discipline he respected, so one wonders if he would have been more willing to change his mind these days.

      Freud was also a good moral thinker.

    2. I don’t give him any credit for “discovering” the unconscious, as many mistakenly do- most of the ideas he supposedly came up with on his own were common at the time.

      “…the founder of psychoanalysis and one of the towering intellectual figures of the 20th century.”- I wouldn’t call him a towering “intellectual” figure at all, either: he had no use for the scientific method and believed that his “insights” were so accurate that testing them would be an insult (even though his “seduction theory” was so ridiculous that even he had to abandon it). He basically made shit up as he went along, and then begged people to agree with him. The only thing that made him famous was his coming out with a set of hair-brained, “sexy” theories at a time when sexual attitudes were beginning to open up and the media was quick to exploit its popularity as a topic.

      Nowadays, there are many more massage therapists in this country than there are Freudian analysts!

  4. Freud was part of the ‘Here be dragons’ era of psychology and it’s more than annoying that he still gets cited as an authority on the mind (mainly by people who haven’t studied the mind; literary ‘theorists’ and the like).

    A total crank – and yet a great writer. If only he’d been born a century later…

    1. I remember as a kid thinking, “why do people think this guy had good ideas? These are terrible ideas!” I guess he was the first one start psychiatry along a new and better way of thinking about things.

  5. Sounds much like I thought. Such a celebrated yet vastly flawed character. His own neuroses and psychological conflicts probably caused many people suffering through improper diagnoses. Not exactly a solid foundation for psychology but its come on a lot since his day.
    I didnt realise he smoked himself to death though. Stuck at the oral stage? I jest.

  6. Sigmund Freud apparently does have some fans in the scientific community. For example, the neuroscientist Eric Kandel has sung the praises of Freud on multiple occasions and stated that he was a role model for his research. I know Freud started out as a neuroanatomist before he went off the deep end with psychoanalysis so perhaps that’s why.

    1. My vague understanding is that he more or less founded psychoanalysis (couch, beard, cigar, notebook, New Yorker cartoon, etc.) And, I think it is still practiced by some shrinks today. Anyone out there who can verify?

  7. Wha?!? Dylan Thomas monotone? Of all poets I have heard reading their own work, he is the one I would call least monotone. Much of my love for his poems stems from his readings which I find wonderfully musical. Many of his more obscure poems (and the man wrote plenty of those) made much more sense for me, at least aesthetically, after hearing his recitations. “Lament” and “on St. John’s hill” were two readings that stood out particularly to me.

  8. I love old recordings. I love how everybody spoke so slow back then. When you listen to Hemingway, you almost have time to go to the bathroom between his sentences.

  9. Freud introduced thought experiments in relation to eroticism, dynamism, free association, and the ongoing human desire for seeking simulacrums of parental attachment. More importantly, he knew that God was dad.

  10. I notice a strongly sing-song aspect to the speech which I find is common in early recordings, say, prior to 1950 or so. I wonder how that happened.

  11. What is extraordinary about the x-ray radiograph of Freud’s skull is that it probably has about 5 – 10 um resolution for his whole skull. Quite an accomplishment.

    Today, general medical technology is not much higher (for such large field of view) but can be 3D (CAT-CT) at a cost of dose to the patient. Also one plate in 1939 was an analog recording, today we(astronomy and medicine) get up to terabyes of date per day (or night).

  12. I never understood the hype about Freud. I know next to nothing about psychology but when we learned about his id, ego and super-ego model in school it seemed so completely made up (and it still does).

    It seems so made up and I cannot see how this model could possibly have any predictive power. Obviously psychologists disagree or at least disagreed in the past. Otherwise he would not be so well known today.

    1. When my kids were very young, 20 or so years ago, i went to a talk by a psychologist held at their elementary school. This woman seriously put forth the notion that most little girls liked to wear pony tails because they were bereft of penises…

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