Freud the Scientist

The Interpretation of Drawings: Freud the Scientist Banner
Freud traveled to Trieste, Italy in 1876 to spend time at the University of Vienna’s zoological station with the mission of uncovering the lifecycle of eels, organisms that have sparked the imagination of scientists, poets, and philosophers since antiquity. His time in the port city resulted in a series of scientific publications illustrated by his drawings of the eel’s anatomical structures. Freud’s desire was to find a male eel by identifying the testes, a task doomed to failure because larval eels do not have differentiated gonads. “I have been tormenting myself and the eels in a vain effort to rediscover the male eels, but all the eels I cut open are of the gentler sex.” More than offering zoological acumen, Freud’s work indicated what would stand at the heart of the psychoanalytical quest—the relationship among the sexes, masculinity, and castration.

Diagrams of the Syrsky Organ

On the Origin of the Syrsky Organ (1877)

This image, published in a 1877 scientific article, presents five microscopic and cross-sectional figures drawn by Freud, based on his dissection of four hundred eels. They capture the physiological and histological traits of a lobular, or secreting, organ in the eel called, at the time, the Syrsky Organ, which was erroneously thought to be the eel’s testicle.
“Über das Syrskische Organ,” Sitzungsberichte der Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, LXXV, Band 1. Abteilung (1877).


On the Origin of the Posterior Nerve Roots in the Spinal Cord of Ammocoetes (1877)

Appearing in Freud’s first neuroscientific publication, this drawing details elements of the spinal cord of ammocoetes, larval forms of Petromyzon planeri, the brook lamprey. Freud describes nerve cells and fibers and distinguishes them from the meninges that coat the nerve cells. Freud was considered by his peers at the lab to be a poor draftsman, yet his drawings show a command of scientific penmanship as well as his skill in the preparation of microscopic specimens and cutting-edge techniques, such as gold staining.
© Freud Museum, London

Diagram of Eel Internal Structure
The Petromyzon and the Riddle of the Eel (1876)
© Freud Museum, London