After 30 Years, He Beat A Disease Winner Of Nobel Prize Has Another Amazing Feat.

Posted: October 09, 2000

For his part, Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. is self-effacing and reticent about his remarkable life odyssey.

Not so Richard Josiassen. "He's an icon," said Josiassen, a scientist who studies schizophrenia.

"His life story legitimately raises our hopes that people's lives with this illness can be much better," Josiassen said last week before honoring Nash for his triumph over schizophrenia after a 30-year struggle.

Nash, 72, who at age 22 helped lay out the mathematics underpinning so-called game theory, shared the Nobel Prize in economics with two corecipients in 1994. He was a guest of honor and special award recipient at the Arthur P. Noyes Research Foundation's 15th annual schizophrenia conference Friday at Norristown State Hospital.

The foundation, named for the superintendent of Norristown State from 1936 through 1959, is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. It studies schizophrenia and operates a clinical unit at the hospital as a research center.

Schizophrenia is a psychiatric disorder with a major genetic component, said Josiassen, the foundation's executive director. Chronic and debilitating, it manifests itself in myriad ways, including hallucinations and delusions.

"It knows no boundaries of race and culture," Josiassen said. "It's sort of an equal-opportunity disease."

It intruded on Nash's life abruptly in 1959, when he was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nash, in a brief interview, steered clear of making pronouncements about his illness or public perceptions of schizophrenia.

"Things are not so simple," said Nash, who looks appropriately professorial with a sweep of silver hair topping his slender frame. "I'm really trying to be a scientist. I don't want to come out and advocate things."

These days, Nash, who lives in Princeton Junction, is a senior research mathematician at Princeton University.

In 1949, in his doctoral thesis at Princeton, Nash outlined a mathematical equation that is a keystone of game theory. It provides a way to mathematically express the behavior of negotiating rivals, be they individuals, nations or corporations.

But after his illness emerged, Nash's career fell apart as he went through treatment and hospitalization.

"He wandered around Princeton as a ghostlike figure," Josiassen said. Toward the end of the 1980s, however, the illness began to go into what Josiassen called a remission. And as his illness retreated, Nash again began to pursue mathematics.

The fact that he became a corecipient of the Nobel Prize, in recognition of his early work, reflects the changing perceptions of mental illness, Josiassen said.

"Finally, people were able to recognize schizophrenia as yet one more condition of the human race," Josiassen said yesterday as he introduced Nash to about 400 conference participants.

What precipitated Nash's recovery?

"I'm so old now," he said. "There are things that tend to moderate with age. Schizophrenia is somewhat like that."

Mary Blakinger's e-mail address is mary.blakinger@phillynews.com

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