People & Events: John Nash (1928 - )
John Nash was born on June 13, 1928, in Bluefield, West Virginia, a former coal town nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains. As a young boy, Nash was solitary, bookish, and introverted. His father, John Sr., was a quiet engineer with an incisive mind. His mother, Virginia, also intelligent, was a former teacher who had large dreams for her son, pushing him to read at 4, learn Latin, and skip a grade at school.
The first hint of John Nash's math talent came in fourth grade, when a teacher told Virginia that the boy couldn't do the math. Virginia laughed, well aware that her son was going down his own path to solve the simple problems. In high school, John solved his teachers' clunky proofs in just a few elegant steps. He was one of ten nationally awarded winners of the George Westinghouse Award, which provided him with a full scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He hopped from engineering to chemistry before discovering his passion: mathematics.
He was accepted into Princeton University, which at the time was to mathematicians what Detroit was, and still is, to cars. Nash first wowed his peers with an elegantly playable board game, which his peers dubbed "Nash," but later reached the market as Hex. He then absorbed himself in one of the sexiest math fields of the day, game theory, which described strategies in competition, whether in card games or business. His deceptively simple doctoral thesis would later re-orient the field of economics, although no one, not even Nash, predicted its potential.
In 1951 Nash joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One woman who knew him there described him as "very brash, very boastful, very selfish, very egocentric. His colleagues did not like him especially, but they tolerated him because his mathematics was so brilliant." There, Nash began a relationship with a nurse named Eleanor Stier, who soon became pregnant with his child. Nash became a father, yet refused to put his name on his son's birth certificate or financially support him.
Soon after, Nash met Alicia Larde, a 21-year-old El Salvadoran physics major at M.I.T. In 1957 they were married. At M.I.T., Nash went on to solve a series of impressive mathematical problems. In July 1958, Fortune magazine named him one of the brightest mathematicians in the world. He had just turned 30.
Despite his success, Nash lamented his inability to win a coveted mathematical prize, the Fields Medal, and also worried he was past his prime as a mathematician. Shortly after Alicia became pregnant, Nash became sick with schizophrenia, the disease that would plague him for most of his life.
After months of bizarre behavior, Alicia had her husband involuntarily hospitalized at McLean Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital outside of Boston. Upon his release, Nash abruptly resigned from M.I.T., withdrew his pension, and went to Europe, where he intended to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Alicia left her newborn son with her mother, and followed her ailing husband. She then had Nash deported -- back to the United States.
After their return, the two settled in Princeton, New Jersey, where Alicia took a job. John's illness continued, transforming him into a frightening figure. He spent most of his time hanging around on the Princeton campus, talking about himself in the third person as Johann von Nassau, writing nonsensical postcards and making phone calls to former colleagues. They stoically listened to his endless discussions of numerology and world political affairs. Her husband's worsening condition depressed Alicia more and more.
In January 1961 the despondent Alicia, John's mother, and his sister Martha made the difficult decision to commit him to Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey where he endured insulin-coma therapy, an aggressive and risky treatment, five days a week for a month and a half. After his discharge later that year, Princeton colleagues secured him a research position, but he soon left for Europe again, this time alone, sending cryptic letters home. Alicia, after three years of turmoil, divorced him in 1962. His math colleagues came to his rescue again, landing him a position at Brandeis University in Boston and arranging for him to meet with a psychiatrist, who prescribed anti-psychotic medication. Nash's condition improved. He began spending time with Eleanor and his first son, John David.
"Oh, it was very hopeful then, really very hopeful," said his sister, Martha. "Because that was a fairly long period. And then things began to slip." John went off his medication, fearing the effects of the drugs on his thinking, and the delusional symptoms resurfaced.
In 1970 Alicia Nash, believing she had made a mistake by originally committing her husband, took him in again, this time as her "boarder," a move that might have prevented his homelessness. In the years following, Nash wandered the Princeton campus, leaving cryptic formulas on blackboards. Princeton students dubbed him "The Phantom."
Then, in the 1980s, Nash slowly began to get better -- his delusions diminished and he became more engaged with the world around him. Although it is unclear how it happens, a portion of people with schizophrenia do recover as they age. In 1994, at the age of 66, John Nash received the Nobel Prize in Economics in Stockholm, Sweden, for his work on game theory. Thirty-eight years after their divorce, Alicia and John remarried. Nash has returned to an office at Princeton, where he continues to explore mathematics, the world in which he first succeeded, the world that carried him during his debilitating illness, and the world that has embraced him again.
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