John Nash – From mentally ill to Nobel Prize winner

Mental illness. One of the biggest taboos in the world. Rarely do people talk about it or treat it, and no one really takes it seriously as a disease that needs proper attention and care. People with mental illness are simply called mad and are avoided, degraded, and left out in society. The leaders of the most significant nations have always pointed out the fact that the nation will only rise to glory when the disabled people are brought in accordance with the able people. The skills and abilities of disabled people will be used for progression and development. If the mentally ill people can be taken care of, treated with love and affection, they can be beneficial for society. John Nash, one of the greatest mathematicians, has a story that proves that so.  

A genius of the 20th century

John Forbes Nash Jr. or commonly known as John Nash, was an American mathematician who inspired generations of mathematicians, scientists, and economists. Born in 1928, nobody knew that this young lad living in Bluefield, West Virginia will become an exemplary scientist not only for the scientists of the field but for every person fighting with mental illness. He is the only scientist to be honored with both the Abel Prize, received for his contribution to the partial differential equation, and the Nobel Prize on his landmark work in the 1950s, on the mathematics of game theory. David Gabai, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Mathematics and department chair, said on the death of John Nash in 2014,

“John Nash, with his long history of achievements and his incredible battle with mental health problems, was hugely inspirational,”

A young John Nash
A young John Nash

The journey of a rising scientist hampered with mental illness

John Nash was enrolled on a scholarship in chemical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology when he decided to switch to chemistry and ultimately ending up mathematics as his major, where he graduated in 1948. Both Harvard and Princeton University’s offered him a doctoral degree, but the John S. Kennedy fellowship provided by Princeton University convinced John that Princeton valued him more. And Princeton got the opportunity to host the most prominent scientist of the era. In 1950, John published his theory of noncooperative games, an attempt to explain the relationship between threat and action of competitors, which was later renamed as Nash equilibrium. Harold W. Kuhn, an eminent professor of mathematics at Princeton once said, 

“I think honestly that there have been really not that many great ideas in the 20th century in economics, and maybe, among the top 10, his equilibrium would be among them.”

 Roger Myerson, an economist of the University of Chicago, compared the impact of the Nash equilibrium on economics with,

“That of the discovery of the DNA double helix in the biological sciences.”

The career of the young Nash started to flourish. After his doctoral degree, he was appointed as an instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he began working on solving problems in partial differential geometry that no one could solve before him. But the intellectual outgrowth becomes cancerous for the tall, good-looking man who ultimately got trapped in delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia leading to hospitalization in 1959 in the psychiatric ward as a patient of Schizophrenia.

The secret mission 

John Nash was appointed on a secret task to decipher codes from the messages hidden in the patterns of newspapers and magazines to detect Soviet bombs hidden in the country. The mission was assigned by William Parcher, the United States Department of Defense supervisor. He was quite enthusiastic until he witnesses an encounter between Parcher and the Soviet Union that feared John. But Parcher blackmailed him into working on his task.  

It was under the threat that one day while giving a lecture at Harvard University, John tried to flee, thinking the students are the army of the Soviet Union. In an attempt to escape, John punched Dr. Rosen, who he felt him as the head of the Soviet Union army at Harvard University. But, in reality, all of this was delusions and hallucinations. Dr. Rosen forcibly sedated John Nash, and this was the time when his wife, Alice, came to know that John Nash had a mental illness called paranoid Schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia didn’t make John Nash useless

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder that disables the person’s ability to reason. One starts to hallucinate and interpret reality differently. The disordered thinking and delusional behavior result in the impaired functioning of the patient. John Nash was admitted to the hospital back and again and given various medications, which made the intellectual man vanish from the big screen. However, throughout the period, his work was cited numerously and was taught in economics and mathematics worldwide. Ms. Nasar wrote in the 1994 Times article,

“He hadn’t held an academic post since 1959. Many people had heard, incorrectly, that he had had a lobotomy. Others, mainly those outside of Princeton, simply assumed that he was dead.”

Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994

According to research, patients of Schizophrenia do not recover in 80% cases, and the rest are the cases where patients in their later ages faced the illness for the first time. But John Nash thrashed all the theories of science. The young man of 30s who suffered his early psychosis not only recovered without any medications but received the Nobel Prize in 1994. When the Nobel committee was deciding on the possibility of giving John Nash the award, John messaged his colleague Dr. Kuhn saying,

“I emerged from irrational thinking, ultimately, without medicine other than the natural hormonal changes of aging,” 

The struggle picturized 

The heartfelt struggle of John Nash became an Academy Award-winning motion picture in 2001 called “The Beautiful Mind” based on Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 biography starring Russell Crow as John Nash. A more detailed struggle of John Nash with mental illness was described by a television documentary called “A Brilliant Madness” in 2002 for the general public. 

Stories like these allow people to think differently about mentally ill people. John Nash was an example where he quit taking medications, but the encouraging environment of his friends, colleagues, and wife allowed him to come back on the big screen as a more successful name. Unfortunately, the saddening stigma of society leads to many like Hawking and John Nash to die without exhibiting their skills to the world. It is time that we should bring a change in our community and make it favorable for our disabled and mentally ill people.

Also Read: Movies that brilliantly portray Mental Disorders

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