In A Nutshell
Wilhelm Fliess might have been a doctor, but he had some pretty weird ideas about the human body. This 19th-century physician thought the nose was hooked up to the genitals and caused all sorts of sexual, physical, and mental problems. Fliess also believed these nose-related illnesses (which he dubbed “nasal reflex neuroses”) could only be cured by surgery . . . a belief which ended badly for a woman named Emma Eckstein.
The Whole Bushel
How are you feeling today? Asthma acting up? Breakfast disagreeing with you? Feel a migraine coming on? Well, you might be suffering from nasal reflex neurosis. At least that’s when Wilhelm Fliess would have said. A doctor who specialized in diseases of the ear, nose, and throat, Fliess was a 19th-century Berliner completely obsessed with the human schnoz. In fact, he believed it was the source—and the potential cure—for almost every ailment imaginable.
To be fair, Fliess wasn’t the first to suggest a connection between our problems and our proboscises. That distinction goes to an American surgeon named John McKenzie. However, Fliess was the one who really championed the idea that the nose was the be-all, end-all of human health. According to the good doctor, the nose was responsible for everything from headaches to nightmares to vertigo . . . to sexual problems. That’s right. Fliess actually believed the nose was hooked to the genitalia via the nervous system.
Dr. Fliess claimed the nose was the driving force behind menstruation, miscarriages, and sexual dysfunction. And since the nose was connected to a person’s private parts, the cure for all sexual problems (physical and mental) was obviously nose surgery. After identifying “genital spots” inside the nostrils, Fliess removed chunks of the nose with either knives or acid. A few quick snips, and voila—the patient was supposedly cured of their nasally neurosis. In fact, Fliess was such a believer in these operations that he claimed he could perform an abortion through a woman’s nose. However, if a patient’s problems weren’t bad enough to warrant surgery, the doc would instead recommend a nice long line of cocaine.
Unsurprisingly, these bizarre beliefs attracted the attention of Sigmund Freud. The famous psychologist started sending his clients over to Fliess’s operating table, and soon he was frequenting the doctor’s office himself. After all, Freud was a major cokehead and suffered from some pretty nasty nasal side effects. However, their professional relationship fell apart after the “Emma Eckstein Incident.” One of Freud’s most famous patients, Eckstein suffered from some rather Victorian illnesses such as “hysteria” and “compulsive masturbation.” Believing surgery would fix her problems, Freud called for Fliess . . . only the German performed the sloppiest nose job in history.
At first, the operation seemed like a success, but a few weeks later, blood started gushing out of Eckstein’s nose. As her face caved in, she snorted out “two bowls full of pus” and a hunk of bone the size of a coin. With his patient on death’s doorstep, Freud scheduled a second operation with a different doctor, who made a disgusting discovery. As it turned out, Fliess had accidentally left half a meter of gauze inside Emma Eckstein’s nose. Horrified, Freud cut off communications with Fliess, and the two men ended their personal and professional relationship. After the fallout, Fliess essentially vanished from history, and nasal reflex neurosis fell out of favor with the medical crowd. As for Freud, the breakup was no skin off his nose.
Show Me The Proof
Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul, by Sander L. Gilman
Mind Hacks: From the nose to the genitals and back again
Medical Errors and Medical Narcissism, by John D. Banja
io9.com: The doctor who believed the nose and the genitals were connected