Dead People You Should Know: John Nash Jr.

Living with a mental illness can be debilitating. It can negatively affect your personal and professional life. However, that is not something that should stop you from achieving your goals and writing your name in the history books. One such figure who is a great example of that is Nobel Prize winner John Nash Jr. 


According to MacTutor History of Mathematics, Nash was born in Bluefield, West Virginia on June 13, 1928. His father, John Nash Sr., was a World War I veteran and his mother, Margaret Virginia Martin, was a school teacher. As a child, he enjoyed books but showed very little interest in playing with other kids. His parents supported his endeavors and supplied him with several books. His teachers were more concerned by his lack of social skills instead of realizing his potential. At age 14, he took great interest in mathematics, reading the book Men of Mathematics by Eric T. Bell. He preferred the mathematics in this book to the one he learned in school.


In 1941, he attended Bluefield College, taking mathematics and science classes. He especially loved chemistry. While there, he began showing problem-solving skills in the field of mathematics. Even with his undeniable talent in this field, he did not consider it as a profession. Instead, he thought of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming an electrical engineer. Meanwhile, he continued conducting experiments. 


In 1945, he was accepted into Carnegie-Mellon University with the aim of obtaining a degree in chemical engineering. However, he changed his interests and began focusing on mathematics. While there, he took the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition twice. He did not get top five and became demoralized. In college, his professors liked him, but fellow classmates thought he was strange and poked fun at him.


In 1948, he earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Mathematics. At this point, he was accepted by Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, and Michigan. He had his mind set on Harvard because they were the leading school. However, Princeton made him an offer he could not refuse. The decision took a while, but his professors encouraged him to pick Princeton— so he did.


In September of that year, he entered Princeton, taking interest in a wide range of mathematics. He avoided going to lectures and preferred learning about the topics firsthand. That is most likely why he was able to develop such original ideas.


In 1949, he began writing the paper that would later win him the Nobel Prize. At this time, he also began developing his mathematical principles of game theory.


In 1950, he received a doctorate from Princeton. In the summer, he worked with the RAND Corporation and applied his expertise in game theory for military and diplomatic strategies in the Cold War.


In autumn, he returned to Princeton and began seriously working on pure mathematics. Though his work would later be world-changing, no one at the time saw them as important.   


In 1952, he published Real Algebraic Manifolds, a publication that would cement him as a leading mathematician. Though his talent was undeniable, many at Princeton were not eager to see him join their ranks. It was not about his lack of talent, it had more to do with his hostile personality. 


Later that year, he began teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His teaching style was unpopular with students.


In the following years, he continued developing theories. He even started a family in 1958. Despite that, his mental state began deteriorating. The following year he went back to the university. A couple of weeks into the course he disappeared. His return coincided with his deteriorating health. He began ranting about seeing encrypted messages from outer space. Many thought he was playing a prank on them, but an associate of his, Norbert Wiener was first to spot his behavior as a symptom of a mental disorder.


After months of strange behavior, his wife involuntarily hospitalized him at a psychiatric facility. Following his release, he resigned from MIT and went to Europe. His wife had him deported back to the US. Upon his return, they settled in Princeton, where he hung around the campus and pulled pranks. 


In 1961, he was committed to another hospital and underwent insulin-coma therapy. His condition improved but worsened in the following months. This culminated in his divorce in 1962. He spent the next eight years wandering Princeton’s Mathematics Department. His condition slowly improved over the next 30 years.


In 1994, Nash, along with two other men, won the Nobel Prize in Economics. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, he and his wife would slowly reconcile their relationship and remarry in 2001. That same year, Universal Pictures released A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe. The film goes through the events of his life and struggles with schizophrenia. The title is rather fitting since Nash had a brilliant mind, but schizophrenia prevented his stability. 


John Nash reminds us that mental issues and the challenges they bring are not a limiter. Even while dealing with delusions, he was able to create a life for himself - a life in pursuit of knowledge and mathematical understanding.


John Nash Jr. Thumbnail

Xi, Cheng, China Nobel Forum, ImagineChina

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