John Forbes Nash, Jr. was born on June 13, 1928 in Bluefield, West Virginia to John Forbes Nash, Sr., an electrical engineer for the Appalachian Power Company, and Margaret Virginia Martin, an English and Latin teacher. Though Bluefield, by Nash’s own description, “was not a community of scholars or of high technology,” his parents recognized the value of academics and were supportive of young John’s scholastic pursuits.
Early in his life, Nash’s parents provided him with a copy of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia, essentially launching the rapid development of his academic abilities. By the time he was four years old, Nash had learned how to read.
He eventually picked up Latin, and with his mother’s tutoring outside of the classroom, Nash was able to skip a grade level at school. From an early age, Nash was aware of his intellectual superiority to his peers and turned inwards to lead a relatively solitary and introspective childhood—a trend that would continue over the course of his lifetime.
From a young age, Nash showed a particular affinity for mathematics, and after reading Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell in high school, his interest was piqued. Following his father’s lead, Nash originally planned to put his mathematical sensibilities to use as an electrical engineer. In 1945, Nash was one of ten nationally recognized recipients of the George Westinghouse Award, which provided him with a full scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Because of the war, colleges were operating on an accelerated, year-round academic calendar so that students could graduate in three years. In mid-June of 1945, Nash caught a train to Pittsburgh to begin classes at Carnegie Tech.
Though he entered as a chemical engineering student, after only one semester Nash changed his major to chemistry. Soon after, he grew restless with his new course of study, writing that chemistry, “was not a matter of how well one could think and understand or learn facts but of how well one could handle a pipette and perform a titration in the laboratory.” Frustrated, Nash decided to change his major for one final time, this time to mathematics. When he graduated from Carnegie Tech in 1948, he had progressed so far in his studies of mathematics that the school awarded him a Masters degree in addition to his Bachelors of Science.
After graduating from Carnegie Tech, Nash was accepted to graduate fellowships at both Harvard and Princeton, eventually deciding to attend Princeton due to its closer geographic proximity to Bluefield and his perception that the university desired him more so than Harvard. At Princeton, Nash studied his namesake equilibrium theory (Nash equilibrium), which examines the dynamics of competition and strategy applicable to both traditional games (like card games) and real-world disciplines like business and economics. Nash earned his doctorate in 1950 with a dissertation on game theory.
In 1951, Nash joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While at M.I.T., he met physics student Alicia Larde and the two married in 1957, with Alicia giving birth to a son soon after. One year later, he was named as "the most promising mathematician in the world" by Fortune magazine. Just as things were beginning to align for John Nash, his mental condition was taking a turn for the worse. His decent into madness became overwhelmingly apparent at an American Mathematical Society lecture at Columbia University in early 1959, where Nash was expected to present his highly-anticipated proof of the Riemann Hypotheses. As Nash spoke, however, it became clear that not only was his proof wrong, but that his speech had nothing to do with the Riemann Hypotheses at all-- he was speaking in complete nonsense. Just one month earlier, Nash had a similarly jarring episode in which he told a friend that he was featured on the cover of Life magazine disguised as Pope John XXIII, and that he knew this because his favorite prime number was 23.
After months of erratic behavior, his wife committed him to the McLean Hospital in April of 1959, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Upon his release from the hospital, Nash resigned from his position at M.I.T. and moved to Europe where he sought asylum as a refugee. After Nash was deported back to the United States, he and his wife settled in Princeton, New Jersey, where Nash began to wander the Princeton University campus, referring to himself in the third person, writing irrational postcards, and lecturing endlessly on numerology.
According to his autobiography, he continued to drift in and out of New Jersey mental health institutions, “always on an involuntary basis and always attempting a legal argument for release.” After three years of Nash’s steady descent into madness, Alicia filed for divorce in 1962.
After the divorce, Nash’s Boston colleagues convinced him to meet with a psychiatrist, who prescribed him medication for his schizophrenia. Nash’s condition improved dramatically, allowing him to smoothly integrate back into society. Despite the promising progress Nash made while taking anti-psychotic medication, less than a year later he stopped seeking treatment and once again slipped back into his delirious, nonsensical ways. In 1970, Alicia began to have doubts about the divorce and took Nash in as a “boarder” in her home. He again began to wander around Princeton, writing mathematical formulas on blackboards and gaining the nickname of “the Phantom” by students. It wasn’t until over ten years later that Nash would overcome his illness by, according to him, learning to think rationally “in the style that is characteristic of scientists” to reject the voices in his head. In 1994, Nash won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his doctoral thesis on game theory written over 40 years prior. His life was also the subject of a biography by Sylvia Nassaar, A Beautiful Mind, and perhaps most popularly in a film by the same name. Alicia and John eventually remarried, and today Nash continues to work in Princeton’s Department of Mathematics.