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Who is Wilhelm Fliess?

Wilhelm Fliess, a German physician, was born October 24, 1858, in Arnswalde (Markbrandebourg) and died in Berlin on October 13, 1928. He came from a family of Sephardic Jews. His mother observed the orthodox rituals, a tradition her son did not follow. He had a brother who was stillborn and a sister, Clara, a year younger, who died of pneumonia when Wilhelm was twenty. His father was in the grain business and committed suicide when Wilhelm was nineteen years old. He never spoke of this suicide, neither to Freud—to whom he related a different version of the father's death—nor to his own children, who didn't discover the truth until after their own father's death.

Fliess studied medicine in Berlin; in 1883 he opened a practice as a general practitioner and then as an otorhinolaryngologist. The number of patients grew along with his fame. He traveled a great deal, most importantly to Paris, in 1886, a year before meeting Freud, whose lectures he attended in Vienna. This was the start of their friendship, which resulted in a lengthy correspondence from 1887 to 1902, reaching its peak in 1899. Fliess married a Viennese woman from among the circle of Josef Breuer's patients named Ida Bondy, and together they had several children: Robert (1895) who became a well-known psychoanalyst after his emigration to the United States, Pauline (1898), Conrad (1899), and a stillborn daughter in 1902. Freud was treated by Fliess and was his enthusiastic collaborator; the two men met approximately once a year.

Fliess initially thought there was a correlation between the genital organs and the nose, based on the principle of what he called the reflex nasal neurosis. In May 1895, when his wife was pregnant with their first child, he had a revelation of the theory of periods as a solution to the question of when conception occurred and the determination of the sex of the child. From that moment on he began constructing his system, postulating a cosmic harmony governed by the solar cycles, measured in days and years, between personal, family, and social events, but also affected by the animal and plant kingdoms. All vital events are determined by two periods, a male period of twenty-three days, and a female period of twenty-eight days, which are transmitted from generation to generation, from mother to child. Added to this bisexual periodicity was the idea of bilateralism, which represents the imprint of the simultaneity of the two periods on the body, the left hand bearing the positive and negative qualities of the opposite sex. Freud was interested in several aspects of the theory but doubted the cohesion of the three features (biperiodicity, bisexuality, and bilateralism) that were essential for Fliess and its predictive nature, which Fliess viewed as a rejection. He experienced this as a kind of persecution and in 1900 began distancing himself from his friend although Freud was not fully aware of it.

Their final break occurred in 1906. At the same time as the appearance of his major work on the theory of periods, The Course of Life, Fliess wrote a scathing pamphlet, "Pour ma propre cause," in which he accused Freud of having served as an intermediary in the plagiarism of his work by two young Viennese authors, Hermann Swoboda and Otto Weininger, who each had appropriated half of his ideas.

After breaking with his friend, Freud destroyed all his letters from Fliess and developed a theory of paranoia based on these experiences, which he also applied to Daniel Paul Schreber. Having done so, he failed to take into account the fact that his friend's delusion had first appeared in 1895 and he had encouraged it even as he took comfort in it. It was almost a reversal of the accusation of plagiarism to the extent that Fliess copied nature through his unshaken conviction that the determination of periods mimics natural cycles.

Ignorance and the censorship of the relations between Freud and Fliess have contributed to a fabricated version of Freud's self-analysis as the mythic origin of psychoanalysis, which projects a later schema of standard analytic therapy onto the original discovery. Fliess was not the analyst of Freud's unconscious desires, but he represented a kind of precursor of the subject assumed to have knowledge of biology, and in doing so helped combine Freud's desire to be an analyst with a future science (that both men would divide between them).

After his break with Freud, Fliess continued to devote himself to his medical practice, caring for several analysts (Alix Strachey and Karl Abraham among them), and writing numerous articles, always on the same subjects, which were anthologized in books. With Ivan Block and Ernst Haeckel, he was a member of the Berlin Medical Society for the Sexual Sciences and Eugenics. He died of intestinal cancer on October 13, 1928. He was eulogized as a great doctor from Berlin.

Erik Porge

See also: Bisexuality; Eckstein, Emma; Fackel (Die-); Freud: Living and Dying ; Freud's Self-Analysis ; Germany; Irma's injection, dream of; On Dreams ; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Self-analysis; Sex and Character ; Splits in psychoanalysis; Swoboda, Hermann; Weininger, Otto.


Abraham, Karl. (1991). Six lettres inéditesà W. Fliess. A. Buffel, E. Porge. Littoral31-32, 247-257.

Fliess, Wilhelm. (1977). Les Relations entre le nez et les organes génitaux féminins présentées selon leurs significations biologiques (P. Ach and J. Guir, Trans.). Paris: Le Seuil. (Original work published 1897)

Freud, Sigmund. (1985c). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904. (J. M. Masson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Sulloway, Franck. (1979). Freud: The biologist of the mindNew York: Basic Books.

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