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The doctor who believed the nose and the genitals were connected

Illustration for article titled The doctor who believed the nose and the genitals were connected

There's nothing like the doctoring that people got in the late 1800s (thank goodness). Here's how a mutual appreciation society ended up nearly killing one woman, and collapsing a side of her face.


It was Vienna in the 1800s, and Sigmund Freud was coming into vogue. He believed in the significance of dreams, the importance of talk therapy, and the benefits of cocaine. To be fair to him, all three of those ideas stuck around through the next century, but one could have comfortably been left off the list. Through his papers on cocaine as a local anesthetic and an aid to talk therapy, he met another doctor called Wilhelm Fliess.

Fliess was an otalaryngologist. He branched out, dabbling in theories about the rhythms that dictate how humans lived their lives, and the sexual cycles that women and men go through. Mostly, though, he was interested in how the disorders of the nasal passages might be the key to many other disorders. He started modestly, with some understandable connections, including sleeping problems and chest pains. Then, as his connection with Freud got deeper, things got weird.


Fliess began speculating that problems with the nasal passages caused menstrual pain, miscarriages, and psychological disorders. The list grew and grew, and eventually was gathered together under the name of "nasal reflex neurosis." Freud's patients began seeing Fliess. Freud also began seeing Fliess, in part because his nasal passages were inflamed due to all the cocaine he was using.

Clearly, this team-up was a recipe for disaster, and that disaster came in the form of Anna Eckstein. Freud diagnosed her with hysteria and compulsive masturbation, and Fliess went to work. Within a month, Eckstein was near the point of death. When another otolaryngologist checked Fliess's work, he found gauze left inside the patient's nose. Eckstein went into Freud's office with nervousness and a tendency to masturbate, and went out with half her face collapsed due to surgery and infection.

That may have been the first crack in the friendship. Although Eckstein didn't seem to hold a grudge and became an analyst herself, Freud dreamed of her tearing into him in front of his colleagues and his trust in surgery waivered. Perhaps Fliess sensed the coolness, or perhaps their friendship was just subject to the frequent falling-outs that occur when scientists get together. Fliess accused Freud of stealing his theories, and declared that Freud would be dead by 51 as a result of his personal biorhythms. Freud ordered his correspondence with Fliess destroyed (even though it had been sold), and died at 83 — possibly to spite Fliess.

[Via Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, The Nose and Sex, Washington Post]


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Very interesting article Esther! There's a bad joke here to be made about nose and genital connections..but I just can't put my finger on it.