Wilhelm Fliess

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Wilhelm Fliess
Wilhelm Fließ
Fliess (right) and Sigmund Freud in the early 1890s.
Born 24 October 1858
Arnswalde, Province of Brandenburg
(today Poland)
Died 13 October 1928 (aged 69)
Berlin, Province of Brandenburg
Nationality German
Fields Otolaryngology

Wilhelm Fliess (German: Wilhelm Fließ; 24 October 1858 – 13 October 1928) was a German Jewish otolaryngologist who practised in Berlin. On Josef Breuer's suggestion, Fliess attended several "conferences" with Sigmund Freud beginning in 1887 in Vienna, and the two soon formed a strong friendship. Through their extensive correspondence and the series of personal meetings, Fliess came to play an important part in the development of psychoanalysis.


Fliess developed several idiosyncratic theories, such as 'vital periodicity', forerunner of the popular concepts of biorhythms. His work never found scientific favor, though some of his thinking – such as the idea of innate bisexuality– was incorporated into Freud's theories. Fliess believed men and women went through mathematically fixed sexual cycles of 23 and 28 days, respectively.[1]

Another of Fliess's ideas was the theory of 'nasal reflex neurosis'. This became widely known following the publication of his controversial book Neue Beitrage und Therapie der nasaelen Reflexneurose in Vienna in 1892. The theory postulated a connection between the nose and the genitals and related this to a variety of neurological and psychological symptoms; Fliess devised a surgical operation intended to sever that link.

Freud referred occasional patients to Fliess for treatment of their neurosis through nasal surgery and also via anaesthetization of the nasal mucosa with cocaine. Together, Fliess and Freud developed a Project for a Scientific Psychology, which was later abandoned. Fliess wrote about his biorythmic theories in Der Ablauf Des Lebens.

Emma Eckstein (1865–1924) had a particularly disastrous experience when Freud referred the then 27-year-old patient to Fliess for surgery to remove the turbinate bone from her nose, ostensibly to cure her of premenstrual depression. Eckstein haemorrhaged profusely in the weeks following the procedure, almost to the point of death as infection set in. Freud consulted with another surgeon, who removed a piece of surgical gauze that Fliess had left behind.[2] Eckstein was left permanently disfigured, with the left side of her face caved in. Despite this, she remained on very good terms with Freud for many years, becoming a psychoanalyst herself.

Fliess also remained close friends with Freud. He even predicted Freud's death would be around the age of 51, through one of his complicated bio-numerological theories ("critical period calculations"). Their friendship, however, did not last to see that prediction out: in 1904 their friendship disintegrated due to Fliess's belief that Freud had given details of a periodicity theory Fliess was developing to a plagiarist. Freud died at 83 years of age.

Freud ordered that his correspondence with Fliess be destroyed. It is only known today because Marie Bonaparte purchased Freud's letters to Fliess and refused to permit their destruction.

Personal life

His son Robert Fliess was also a psychoanalyst and a prolific writer in that field. He devised the phrase ambulatory psychosis.[3] Jeffrey Masson claimed that Fliess sexually molested his son Robert and that this caused Fliess to undermine Freud's investigation of the seduction theory because of its implications for his life.[4]

His niece Beate Hermelin (née Fleiss) was an experimental psychologist, who worked in the UK, where she made major contributions in what is now known as developmental cognitive neuroscience.


Though Fliess' ideas are often ridiculed today, modern science has in fact revealed that the nose has more than one connection with sexual behaviour and the genitals. The nose is now known to contain erectile tissue, and this may also become engorged during sexual arousal as a side-effect of the signals fired off by the autonomic nervous system to trigger changes in the genitals of both men and women. A condition exists known as honeymoon rhinitis, in which men and women experience nasal stuffiness during sex, and a small number of people are known to sneeze, sometimes uncontrollably, when engaging in or even thinking about sexual activity. The existence of evolutionary relics within the autonomic nervous system has been hypothesised as a cause.[5] Even more remarkably, a study on mice has suggested that the difference between male and female sexual behaviour may be explained by a tiny organ in the nose rather than gender-specific brain circuitry.[6]

Fliess appears as a character in Joseph Skibell's 2010 novel, A Curable Romantic. The story of the relationship between Freud and Fliess is told by Martin Gardner in his July 1966 Mathematical Games column in Scientific American.


  • Wilhelm Fließ: Die Beziehungen zwischen Nase und weiblichen Geschlechtsorganen (In ihrer biologischen Bedeutung dargestellt), VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, Saarbrücken 2007. (In German.)
  • Sigmund Freud: Briefe an Wilhelm Fließ 1887–1904. S. Fischer Verlag, 2. Auflage (incl. Errata und Addenda) 1999.
  • With Sigmund Freud: The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887–1904, Publisher: Belknap Press, 1986, ISBN 0-674-15421-5
  • Ernest Jones:
    • — (1953). Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. Vol 1: The Young Freud 1856–1900.
    • — (1955). Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. Vol 2: The Years of Maturity 1901–1919.
    • — (1957). Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. Vol 3: The Last Phase 1919–1939. London: Hogarth Press.
  • Robert Fliess:
    • Psychoanalytic Series, Volume 1: Erogeneity and Libido : Addenda to the Theory of the Psychosexual Development of the Human.
    • Psychoanalytic Series, Volume 2: Ego and Body Ego: Contributions to Their Psychoanalytic Psychology
    • Psychoanalytic Series, Volume 3: Symbol, Dream and Psychosis.


  1. http://www.perbang.dk/orcapia.cms?aid=70
  2. Christopher F. Monte, Beneath the Mask: An Introduction to Theories of Personality (6th Edition), "Chapter 2: Sigmund Freud - Psychoanalysis: The Clinical Evidence" (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999).
  3. A Few Kind Words about Hate by Una Stannard
  4. The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory Ballantine Books New York 2003 pages 138–142
  5. Sneezing 'can be sign of arousal'
  6. 'Sex on the brain? No, in the nose'.