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Born in Vienna, his father, Leopold Breuer, taught religion in Vienna's Jewish community. Breuer's mother died when he was quite young, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother and educated by his father until the age of eight. He graduated from the Akademisches Gymnasium of Vienna in 1858 and then studied at the university for one year, before enrolling in the medical school of the University of Vienna. He passed his medical exams in 1867 and went to work as assistant to the internist Johann Oppolzer at the university.
A close friend and collaborator with Sigmund Freud, Breuer is perhaps best known for his work with "Anna O." (Berthe Pappenheim) – a woman suffering with symptoms of paralysis, anaesthesias, and "disturbances of vision and speech." (Zangwill)
Breuer noted that her symptoms were reduced or disappeared after describing them, and it was this 'chimney-sweeping' which led him to explore hypnosis as a method to enhance the process.
The discussions of Anna O. between Freud and Breuer were documented in their "Studies in Hysteria" and became "a formative basis of Freudian theory and psychoanalytic practice; especially the importance of fantasies ..., hysteria ..., and the concept and method of catharsis which were Breuer's major contributions." (Zangwill)
Breuer, working with Ewald Hering at the military medical school in Vienna, was the first to demonstrated the role of the vagus nerve in the reflex nature of respiration. This was a departure from previous physiological understanding, and changed the way scientists viewed the relationship of the lungs to the nervous system. The mechanism is now known as the Hering-Breuer reflex.
Breuer also established the function of the semicircular canals in the ear, and their role in maintaining balance. And in 1894 he was recognized as one of the eminent physicians in Vienna, and was elected to the Viennese Academy of Science.
Breuer married Matilda Altmann in 1868, and they had five children. His daughter Dora later committed suicide rather than be deported by the Nazis. Likewise, one of his granddaughters died at the hands of the Nazis.
A series of meetings between Josef Breuer and Friedrich Nietzsche was fictionally recreated in the book When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom.
- Cranefield, Paul F. "Breuer, Josef." In the Dictionary of Scientific Biography , edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918, ISBN 0-684-80588-X
- Hirschmüller, Albrecht. The Life and Work of Josef Breuer: Physiology and Psychoanalysis. New York: New York University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8147-3427-8
- Zangwill, O.L. "Breuer, Joseph." In The Oxford Companion to the Mind New York: Oxford University Press, 1998 ISBN 0-19-860224-3
- Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology.
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