Josef Breuer

An Austrian physician, physiologist, and a founder of psychoanalysis.

Josef Breuer, an Austrian medical colleague and collaborator of Sigmund Freud in 1877.

Josef Breuer, an Austrian medical colleague and collaborator of Sigmund Freud in 1877.
(© Mary Evans Picture Library/ Alamy)

Josef Breuer was born in Vienna, Austria, on January 15, 1842. His father, Leopold Breuer, taught religion in Vienna's Jewish community. His mother died when her son was quite young, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother and educated by his father until the age of eight. He graduated from the Akademisches Gymnasium of Vienna in 1858 and then studied at the University of Vienna for one year before enrolling in the medical school there. He passed his medical exams in 1867 and went to work as an assistant to the internist Johann Oppolzer at the university.

Studies physiological processes

Breuer's first important scientific work was published in 1868. With Ewald Hering, a physiology professor at the military medical school in Vienna, Breuer demonstrated the reflex nature of respiration. It was one of the first examples of a feedback mechanism in the autonomic nervous system of a mammal. The experiments of Hering and Breuer changed the way scientists viewed the relationship of the lungs to the nervous system, and the mechanism is still known as the Hering-Breuer reflex.

In 1868, Breuer married Matilda Altmann, and they eventually had five children. Following Oppolzer's death in 1871, Breuer entered private practice. Nonetheless, he found time for scientific study. He worked in his home, with funds derived from his medical practice. Turning his attention to the physiology of the ear, he discovered the function of the semicircular canals. This work provided the foundation for the modern understanding of how sensory receptors detect position and movement. Breuer published approximately 20 papers on physiology over a period of 40 years. Although he joined the faculty of internal medicine at the University of Vienna in 1875, his relationships there were strained; he resigned his position in 1885.

The story of Anna O.

In 1880 Breuer first observed the development of a severe mental illness in one of his patients, “Anna O.,” whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim. Breuer found that he could reduce the severity of Anna's symptoms by encouraging her to describe her fantasies and hallucinations. He began using hypnosis to facilitate these sessions. He found that when she recalled a series of memories led back to a traumatic memory, one of her many symptoms would disappear, a process that Breuer called cathartic. Soon, Breuer was treating Anna with hypnosis twice a day, and eventually all of her symptoms were gone. Breuer drew two important conclusions from his work with this patient: first, that her symptoms were the result of thoughts that were buried in her unconscious and, second, that when these thoughts were spoken and became conscious, the symptoms disappeared. Breuer's treatment of Pappenheim is the first example of deep psychotherapy carried out over an extended time period.

When Freud began to use Breuer's methods of psychoanalysis, Breuer and Freud discussed Freud's patients and the techniques and results of their treatments. In 1893, they published an article on their work and, two years later, a book which marked the beginning of psychoanalytic theory, Studien u¨ber Hysterie (Studies on Hysteria). At about the same time, their collaboration and their friendship started to unravel, ending in 1896, after which apparently they never spoke to each other again. Apparently Breuer's ambivalence concerning the value of their work fueled their discord. However, their final break came about over the question of childhood memories of seduction. At the time, Freud believed that most of his patients had actually been seduced as children. Only later did he realize that Breuer was correct in believing these to be memories of childhood fantasies.

Breuer dropped his study of psychoanalysis, and Freud continued to develop his theories independently. However, among other concepts, Breuer usually is credited with having first suggested that perception and memory are different psychic processes and with having developed a theory of hallucinations. Breuer's background in physiology had a profound influence on the development of his theories, and it is likely that his influence on the work of Sigmund Freud has been underestimated. Some physicians, called Breuerians, continued for a time to use Breuer's original cathartic techniques without adopting Freud's modifications and amplifications.

Breuer was regarded as one of the finest physicians and scientists in Vienna. In 1894, he was elected to the Viennese Academy of Science. Breuer died in Vienna in 1925. His daughter Dora later committed suicide rather than be deported by the Nazis; one of his granddaughters died at the hands of the Nazis. Other members of his family emigrated.

See also Freud, Sigmund; Transference .


AROPA. “Joseph Breuer.” (accessed July 23, 2015).

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “Joseph Breuer (1842–1925).”–sciences/josephbreuer (accessed July 23, 2015).

Wade, Nicholas, Marco Picolino and Adrian Simmons. “Josef Breuer.” (accessed July 24, 2015).



Albrecht, Hirschmller. The Life and Work of Josef Breuer: Physiology and Psychoanalysis. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

Breuer, Josef, and Sigmund Freud. Studies in Hysteria. Translated by Nicola Luckhurst. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification. New York: Routledge, 1996.


Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 100 S. The Grove Dr., Los Angeles, CA, 90036, (323) 651-3704, info@, .