Ask Alma's Owl: Volumes of Freud, but No Couch

September 01, 2016

Dear Alma,

I think I saw Sigmund Freud’s signature in one of the books in the health sciences library on the Medical Center campus. Are many of the books from his library here?

—A Freudian

Dear Freudian,

In 1939, an Austrian rare book dealer put out a sale catalog that listed books on medicine, science and sexuality from the library of “a famous Viennese scientific explorer.”

Some 4,220 miles away, the librarian of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, which was then, as now, affiliated with Columbia University Medical Center, read that description. Jacob Shatzky, a Judaic scholar with a deep interest in psychiatry, was sure that the books belonged to Sigmund Freud, who had fled to London a year earlier when the Germans annexed Austria.

He persuaded the head of the Institute to buy the books, promising that if they weren’t Freud’s he would pay the $500 purchase price himself. Shatzky was correct, of course, and some 770 volumes belonging to the father of psychiatry now sit in Columbia’s Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library on 168th Street.

Pull up a chair in the library’s Geraldine McAlpin Webster Reading Room and you can read an 1895 article by Freud in French translation titled “Obsessions et Phobies.” The collection includes volumes on subjects such as psychoanalysis, psychiatry, hysteria, neurology, physiology, sexuality and other sciences. About 54 volumes contain annotations or signatures from Freud himself or his contemporaries.

Freud took as many books as he could with him to London, where they are now in the Freud Museum. The rest he gave to a friend, who sold them to the bookseller when he fled Vienna, too.

Columbia’s portion of Freud’s library has long been known to those studying the history of psychoanalysis and psychiatry. “Scholars from around the world continue to consult it,” said Stephen E. Novak, head of archives and special collections at the health sciences library.

In 1978, when Anna Freud—her father’s youngest child and herself a psychoanalyst—received an honorary doctor of science degree from the University in recognition of her, “extraordinary series of scientific contributions,” she visited her father’s collection.

“However one regards Freud’s theories, no one can deny his profound impact on culture in general, not just psychiatric practice,” Novak said. “His library provides a glimpse into the intellectual development of a seminal figure in Western culture.

“So often we have no idea who might have used one of the volumes in our rare book holdings,” said Novak. “To realize that a book from the Freud library that I’m holding was also once held by Freud is a huge thrill.”

—Gary Shapiro

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