Sigmund Freud's Final Years

Urn containing Sigmund Freud and wife Martha's ashes
Jim Dyson / Getty Images

Sigmund Freud was one of psychology's most famous theorists, and he remains an influential figure to this day. While he spent most of his life and career working and developing his theories in Vienna, Austria, the final years of his life were a time of considerable change. Learn more about the final years of Freud's life and the ultimate cause of his death.

The Final Year of Freud's Life

Sigmund Freud died in London on September 23, 1939, at the age of 83. The final year of Freud's life was a time of upheaval and struggles with illness. He had spent most of his life living and working in Vienna, but all this changed when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938.

In addition to being Jewish, Freud's fame as the founder of psychoanalysis made him a target. Both Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna were interrogated by the Gestapo, and many of his books were burned.

In his final interview with the Gestapo, Freud was forced to sign a statement saying that he had not been mistreated. Freud sarcastically commented, "I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone."

Leaving Vienna for London

Shortly after, a family friend secured the safe passage of Freud, his wife Martha, and daughter Anna to England. One of Freud's sisters had moved to the U.S. many years prior, and his brother also managed to leave Austria in 1938, but some of Freud's family members were not so fortunate. Despite several attempts to get his four sisters, Dolfi, Mitzi, Rosa, and Pauli, out of the country, none were successful. All four women later died in concentration camps.

Freud left Vienna on June 4, 1938, arriving two days later in London, England. "The triumphant feeling of liberation," he wrote, "is mingled too strongly with mourning, for one had still very much loved the prison from which one has been released."

Once they arrived in London, Sigmund and Martha settled into a new home at 20 Maresfield Gardens. A heavy cigar smoker, Freud had been suffering from mouth cancer since 1923 and had already undergone 30 operations. After his cancer returned, his doctors declared that the tumor was inoperable. 

His beloved dog would howl in his presence due to the scent of Freud's necrotic jaw bone. He was also forced to wear an oral prosthesis to keep his nasal and oral cavities separated, making it difficult to either eat or speak.

While talking became painful and difficult due to cancer, he recorded a brief message for the BBC on December 7, 1938. Freud was 82 years old at the time, and the message is the only known recording of his voice in existence.

On September 21, 1939, Freud asked his doctor to administer a fatal dose of morphine. Freud's doctor later wrote, "When he was again in agony, I gave him a hypodermic of two centigrams of morphine. He soon felt relief and fell into a peaceful sleep. The expression of pain and suffering was gone. I repeated this dose after about 12 hours. Freud was obviously so close to the end of his reserves that he lapsed into a coma and did not wake up again.”

Freud died on the morning of September 23, 1939. Three days later, his body was cremated and his ashes placed in an ancient Greek urn originally gifted to him by his friend Marie Bonaparte.

The Attempt to Steal Freud's Ashes

In January of 2014, British police found themselves on the hunt for burglars who apparently tried to steal the ashes of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. According to police, the robbery attempt occurred at a London crematorium on December 31 or January 1. The 2,300-year-old urn containing the cremated ashes of Freud and his wife Martha was damaged in the attempt.

The burglary attempt was "a despicable act," according to Detective Constable Daniel Candler. "Even leaving aside the financial value of the irreplaceable urn and the historical significance of to whom it related, the fact that someone set out to take an object knowing it contained the last remains of a person defies belief."

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Library of Congress. From the individual to society - Part II. In: Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture.

  2. Cohen L. How Sigmund Freud wanted to die. The Atlantic.

  3. Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. Sigmund Freud and the Holocaust.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.