Miss Lucy R: A Case of Hysteria Treated by Sigmund Freud

Miss Lucy R. is probably not one of the most emblematic case of Freud, but it's one that best describes the evolution of his theory and his analysis technique. The case involved a woman who came to his office suffering some rather strange symptoms.
Miss Lucy R: A Case of Hysteria Treated by Sigmund Freud

Last update: 28 March, 2022

Miss Lucy R. suffered an extremely interesting case of hysteria that Sigmund Freud treated. The therapy began toward the end of 1892. The patient had been referred by Wilhelm Fliess, an otorhinolaryngologist. He was a friend and confidant of Freud and had a notable influence on him.

You might wonder why Miss Lucy R. had been referred by an otolaryngologist to a neurologist who was, at the time, trying to make headway in his newly developed process of psychoanalysis. The truth of the matter was that Miss Lucy had been suffering a persistent olfactory hallucination, the smell of burnt pastry. This both embarrassed and disturbed her.

Fliess realized that this wasn’t an organic case, but that there was a mental cause behind it. That’s why he referred her to Freud. This case of hysteria allowed the father of psychoanalysis to test the foundations of his theory. It was also important in advancing his treatment techniques.

Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

-Sigmund Freud-

Freud's face

A case of hysteria

When Miss Lucy arrived at Freud’s office, she was noticeably suffering from infectious rhinitis. Her nose kept running, a symptom that bothered her a lot. She worked as a governess and her health condition was preventing her from carrying out her activities properly. Furthermore, she claimed to have lost her sense of smell. In fact, it seemed that she couldn’t smell anything except burnt pastry, a sensation that appeared from time to time out of the blue.

This last fact allowed Freud to establish that she wasn’t suffering an organic disease, but an unconscious symptom. It wasn’t logical that she’d completely lost her sense of smell for everything except burnt pastry.

According to the theory that Freud was, at the time, still building, her symptoms indicated hysteria. Freud believed that hysteria was the result of trauma. Therefore, Miss Lucy’s life had to be scrutinized to find the trauma and bring it to her conscious life. Then, the symptom would disappear. However, interestingly, Freud also believed that the origins of hysteria were sexual, which didn’t seem to be the case in this instance.

Miss Lucy and the girls

The clue was in the smell of burnt pastry. Freud assumed that this must’ve been associated with a certain experience of Miss Lucy. Initially, as was his custom at the time, Freud attempted to hypnotize the girl. Nevertheless, she resisted and didn’t go into a hypnotic state.

Therefore, the psychoanalyst decided to talk to her without hypnosis. In fact, it was the first case he treated without the use of this technique. The conversation led Miss Lucy to remember an episode in which the smell of burnt pastry had been present.

It had happened one afternoon. She was teaching the girls in her charge to cook and they were baking some pastry. A letter arrived from Miss Lucy’s mother. However, the girls said she shouldn’t open it as it was probably a birthday card to be opened a week later. At this moment, the smell of burned pastry filled the room as the girls had left it in the oven, unattended. That was when Miss Lucy’s olfactory hallucinations started.

It should be stressed that, at the time, Miss Lucy wasn’t happy in her job as she felt that other members of staff were conspiring against her, to the extent that she’d just handed in her resignation. However, the master of the house had asked her to reconsider. It was while she was in this state of indecision that the letter arrived, making her feel that she wanted to return to her mother. On the other hand, these feelings made her feel extremely guilty at the thought of leaving the girls. Ultimately, it transpired that her mother was distantly related to the girls’ deceased mother and Miss Lucy had promised her on her deathbed to always look after them.

A brain in squares, signifying a case of hysteria.

The underlying trauma

From the point of view of Freud’s theory, this whole episode constituted a diagnosis of hysteria. Nevertheless, there was no sexual element. In any case, Miss Lucy stopped perceiving the smell of burnt pastry. However, a new persecuting aroma emerged, that of tobacco.

Following the thread of his own theory, Freud questioned Miss Lucy about her feelings for the girls’ father. She confessed that she was in love with him, although she hadn’t told anyone. She remembered the day he’d entrusted his daughters to her with a great deal of tenderness. Freud’s analysis continued until they reached a crucial event.

One night, the girls’ father had invited several people over to the house. Almost all of them smoked tobacco. At the moment of farewell, one of the women present said goodbye to the girls with a kiss on the lips. This angered the father, who waited for everyone to leave and turned his anger on Miss Lucy. He told her that this must never happen again and that, if it did, she would be held responsible.

When Miss Lucy remembered the episode, her symptoms disappeared. She became more cheerful and stable. She said that she continued to love the girls’ father, but that it no longer tormented her. This particular case was subsequently commented on by both Freud and Josef Breuer.

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  • Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1956). Sobre el mecanismo psíquico de los fenómenos histéricos. Revista de psicoanálisis, 13(3), 266-276.