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John Nash: A great mathematician and his decades-long battle with schizophrenia

John Nash
John Nash

Toronto: John Nash was one of the twentieth century’s greatest mathematicians. And, as a result of his biography A Beautiful Mind and the award-winning film of the same name, he was also one of the most well-known people with schizophrenia during that era.

John Forbes Nash Junior was born on June 13, 1928, in Bluefield, West Virginia, USA, to John Forbes Nash Senior and Margaret Virginia Nash. His father, John Forbes Nash Senior, was an electrical engineer employed by the local power company, while his mother, Margaret Virginia Nash, was a homemaker (nee Martin). Because of John Nash Senior’s solid position during the Great Depression, the Nash family was conservative, republican, and upwardly mobile.

John Nash Junior’s early years were stable, much like the community in which he grew up. Nash’s biographer, Sylvia Nasar, describes him as bright and curious but not a prodigy. While his social awkwardness and immaturity became apparent at school, he was a bright student who benefited greatly from the additional tutoring provided at home by both his parents.

Nash was not isolated during his adolescence, despite his social awkwardness. He did have a circle of close friends in his neighbourhood and developed a reputation as a prankster. He and his friends experimented with making bombs using homemade gunpowder and other explosives at one point. Unfortunately, this adventure ended tragically when one of his friends blew himself up. Around the age of 13, Nash encountered serious mathematics for the first time when he read E.T. Bell’s book, Men of Mathematics. This work was intended to plant the seeds for a fruitful and creative career.

Nash earned a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology after high school, where he initially studied chemical engineering before transferring to chemistry and then mathematics due to his struggles with technical drawing and laboratory work. He was quickly recognised for his mathematical abilities, and one of his professors referred to him in his recommendation to Princeton University as a mathematics genius.

In 1948, Nash enrolled at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, where he would carry out the majority of his pioneering work in mathematics, including the development of his Nash Equilibrium and contributions to game theory. Nash earned his doctorate at Princeton for his work on non-cooperative games, work that would later earn him the Nobel Prize. Following Princeton, Nash joined the enigmatic RAND corporation, a military think tank based in California.

Nash’s illness would manifest itself later, around 1958, while he was teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He would vanish without warning, sometimes for days at a time, and return with no explanation; he would drift off into long reveries during his lectures; he made meaningless statements to colleagues and pupils; and, perhaps most critically, he grew increasingly paranoid, refusing to allow visitors to his office to stand between him and the door and fearing that he was constantly being followed.

Despite the fact that Nash continued to work until 1959, his behaviour and conversations became increasingly strange. When Alicia opted to seek help from a psychiatrist (who was more concerned about her background and sexual life than with Nash’s symptoms), his colleagues immediately saw that he was suffering from a “nervous breakdown.”

Colleagues and students alike wondered on whether Alicia Nash would institutionalise her husband. Nash’s admission to the McLean Hospital, a part of Harvard Medical School that had previously acted as a refuge for a number of well-heeled victims of mental illness, including poet and author Sylvia Plath and musician Ray Charles, was organised by the University’s personnel.

Nash was initially offered a voluntary stay at the hospital, but he declined, convinced that he had important work to do as the leader of a world peace movement that only he knew existed. He was promptly detained involuntarily for observation. A few days later, his mother, Virginia, paid him a visit and became distraught upon seeing his disturbed mental state.

Based on his extraordinarily intricate system of grandiose and persecutory delusions, Nash’s psychiatrists came to an early conclusion and diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. As was customary at the time, the doctors attempted to pin the cause of his illness on his prior life: was it the strain of his work or his new fatherhood that precipitated the illness? His psychoanalyst even postulated, using a Freudian approach, that it was all due to latent homosexuality.

Nash arrived in the psychiatrist’s lap at a time when the treatment of schizophrenia was undergoing significant change. While traditional treatments such as insulin shock, electric shock, and psychoanalysis remained popular, there was growing hope for a new class of drugs called antipsychotics that, early trials indicated, could help alleviate hallucinations and delusions experienced by people with paranoid schizophrenia. Nash was eventually prescribed Thorazine, better known as chlorpromazine, the first of these groundbreaking mind-altering drugs.

Nash responded admirably to the chlorpromazine and began to show significant improvement after only a few days. He retained a lawyer to petition for his release, and with the support of his wife and agreement to outpatient treatment, he was duly discharged after approximately 50 days in confinement.

However, this was not Nash’s final stay in a mental hospital. Nash’s subsequent 20 years or so were marked by repeated hospitalizations interspersed with periods of varying degrees of mental health and ill health. It’s common for people with schizophrenia to live in their own universe, which is bizarre to those around them but entirely reasonable and normal to them.

Nash earned the moniker “The Phantom of Fine Hall” for his habit of prowling the college hallways at all hours, scribbling intricate and arcane formulae on blackboards. However, the academic community at Princeton was extremely supportive, and Nash was frequently able to find work during the times he was able to work. His illness did not prevent him from contributing some truly unique and highly skilled work during this time period.

Nash travelled throughout Europe during one episode of ill health, attempting to convince various European governments to grant him refugee status (he even crossed the Iron Curtain to East Germany, alarming the US government given the sensitive work he had previously been involved with at the RAND corporation. He spent his time obsessively analysing biblical passages and determining their relevance to his own life. He analysed the patterns of number systems, such as the Kchel numbers used to catalogue Mozart’s symphonies, in order to discover patterns that he could relate to his own life. Throughout this time period, his relationship with his wife and child was frequently strained, and he spent extended periods of time apart from them.

Doctors, for their part, attempted both traditional treatments such as insulin shock and newer ones such as antipsychotic medications. This was a time when the first generation of antipsychotics was rapidly developing, and Nash gained access to several new drugs, including Stelazine (trifluoperazine).

One of schizophrenia’s enduring characteristics is that, if the sufferer survives the greatly increased risk of suicide or accident, the condition does appear to improve with age. The sufferer develops the ability to accommodate their psychotic thoughts and live a more ordered life in their vicinity. Many patients also develop the ability to question their delusions and trick their hallucinations over time, acquiring the mystical quality psychiatrists refer to as “insight,” which is critical for successful recovery. Nash began interrogating his delusions intellectually, demanding that they justify themselves. Thus, he was able to gradually discern that the delusions were not representative of reality and could be relegated to a part of his mind that did not require immediate attention. Finally, he concluded that his delusory thinking was a “hopeless waste of intellectual effort.”

One would not expect a great thinker of Nash’s stature to have straightforward relationships, and yet that is exactly what happened. In 1952, while in hospital receiving treatment for varicose veins, he met Eleanor Stier, with whom he later had a son named David. Nash abandoned Eleanor when he learned of the pregnancy, and it took many years for them to reconcile. Nash later met Alicia Lardé Lopez-Harrison,

a naturalised United States citizen with whom he would marry in 1957. Following their divorce, the two remained close and later remarried. They were then reunited until their deaths in 2015.

Nash may have had brief homosexual relationships throughout his life and was arrested for indecency with another man in a public restroom in 1954, when he was in his twenties. Attitudes toward homosexuality were far less progressive in the 1950’s United States of America, which resulted in him losing his security clearance and eventually his job at the RAND Corporation.

Throughout his life, Nash received numerous honours for his contributions to mathematics, including the prestigious John Von Neumann Theory Prize, but he is perhaps best remembered for his 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

If Nash’s life was unpredictable, the manner in which he died stunned everyone. Nash and Alicia were riding in a taxi along the New Jersey Turnpike on 23rd May 2015, following a visit to Norway where he was awarded the Abel Prize. The driver lost control and collided with a crash barrier. Due to the fact that neither of them was wearing a seat belt, the couple was thrown from the vehicle and killed. Their deaths came as a shock to everyone involved in the field of mental health, as well as those in academia. John Forbes Nash Junior died at the age of 86.

For those living with schizophrenia and those who care about them, John Nash’s story offers tremendous hope. To acknowledge that, in some cases at least, of this bizarre illness that is frequently cruel and destructive, the sufferer may eventually learn to live a fulfilling life again with the assistance of skilled professionals and the patience and care of their loved ones. John Nash’s stories demonstrate that, while life with schizophrenia will never be easy, it is possible to achieve a measure of victory in the end. To create a narrative about one’s life; a narrative that speaks of hope and accomplishment rather than despair.

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