Austrian-born British Anna Freud is best known for founding and significantly contributing to the field of child psychoanalysis. A foremost psychoanalyst, she made extensive contributions to understanding how the ‘ego’, or consciousness, works to avoid painful impulses, ideas and feelings.
Born into a family with a professional background in psychiatry – her father was the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud – Anna Freud was notable in that she recognised that working with children, rather than just adults, could have a profound impact on her subjects’ mental health in later life.
1. She was the child of famous neurologist Sigmund Freud
Anna Freud was born on 3 December 1895 in Vienna, then Austria-Hungary. The youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays, her childhood was materially comfortable but reportedly emotionally unhappy. She never had a close relationship with her mother, found it difficult to get on with some of her sisters and reportedly suffered from depression and eating disorders.
2. She spoke multiple languages
Freud attended the Cottage Lyceum, a secondary school for girls in Vienna, where she did well academically and inspired her to choose teaching as a career. The flow of foreign visitors to the Freud household meant that Anna spoke English, French and a little Italian in addition to German.
3. She was a schoolteacher
In 1914, Freud started working as a teaching apprentice at her old school. She was praised for her work as a teacher, and in 1918 was invited to stay on with a regular four-year contract. However, her teaching career was cut short by a bout of tuberculosis. During her long recovery, she read her father’s writings, which piqued her interest in pursuing a career in psychoanalysis, rather than teaching.
4. She assumed more professional responsibility when her father became ill
Freud started her own research and analysis alongside her father, then started to work with patients. In 1922 she became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society after she presented her paper, Beating Fantasies and Daydreams. It was then that she also started working closely with children.
In 1923, her father was diagnosed with cancer which prompted Freud to take more responsibility in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. In 1925 she became Secretary of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) then later became Honorary President in 1973 until her death.
5. She developed theories about the ‘ego’
While Secretary of the International Psychoanalytical Association, Freud continued her child analysis practice and published her famous study The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. It became a founding work of ego psychology and properly established Freud’s reputation as a pioneer in the field.
6. Her family fled the Nazis
In 1937, Freud opened the Jackson Nursery in Vienna for severely deprived toddlers. However, it was closed in 1938 due to the rise of the Nazis. In the same year as its closure, Freud was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Vienna for questioning about the activities of the IPA. She survived her interrogation and returned home, then started arranging for the whole family to leave Vienna.
A former IPA President Ernest Jones helped secure immigration permits for the family to get to Britain, which resulted in the family establishing their new home in Hampstead, London.
7. She opened a nursery for war-traumatised children
In 1941, Freud and her partner, American child psychoanalyst and educator Dorothy Burlingham, opened the Hampstead War Nursery for children whose lives had been affected by war. Many of the staff hailed from the exiled Austro-German diaspora, and all were trained in psychoanalytic theory and practice. Freud went on to publish many studies about child development based on her work at the nursery.
In 1952, Freud and Burlingham created the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic (now the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families).
8. She changed the way that children are treated
Freud published many works which emphasised the importance of recognising the impact of childhood on all stages of a person’s early development. A fundamental principle of her work emphasised that children be recognised as individuals in their own right, and should be treated in ways that suited them as such. For instance, she might engage in therapy with a child by helping them write stories or by knitting clothes for their dolls.
Through her publications, talks and seminars, Freud shared her analytic understanding of children with all those who came into contact with children such as parents, teachers, nurses, lawyers and paediatricians.
9. She lectured at Yale Law School
From the 1950s until her death, Freud frequently travelled to the US to lecture and visit friends. She taught at Yale Law School about crime and family and children’s needs and the law. As a result, she co-authored three books: Beyond the Best Interests of the Child (1973), Before the Best Interests of the Child (1979), and In the Best Interests of the Child (1986).
10. Her home was transformed into a museum
Freud died in 1982 and had her ashes placed in the ‘Freud Corner’ of Golders Green Crematorium, next to her parents’ ancient Greek funeral urn. Her life-partner Dorothy Burlingham and many other family members rest there.
In 1986, her London home was transformed into the Freud Museum, dedicated to the memory of her father.