Nancy Andreason: How did you become a Psychiatrist


I was an English professor in the early 1960s. I’d done a book on John Donne. Then, in 1964, I gave birth to my first child and nearly died from a postpartum infection — the very thing that had killed millions of birthing women in the centuries before antibiotics. As I recovered, I realized I had been given back my life, and that caused me to rethink everything in it.  I decided to quit literature studies and go back to school to become a doctor.

From the outset, I knew I wanted to do research and patient care. Because I relish complexity, I chose psychiatry — it’s more complicated than neurology. And I chose brain research because the brain is the most complicated organ in the body. I wanted to do something as important as the discovery of penicillin, the thing that had saved me.

NAMI Interview: Nancy Andreason

The truth is I’ve had one experience—and it’s 100 percent private—but it was not the trigger that gave me the passion I have. The trigger is the patients that I have seen and continue to see. Someone like Kay Jameson, and I myself, I think are pretty darn sane. My husband would say, “God seems to be trying you.” I’ve had a lot of personal tragedy, my first husband died from cancer, my oldest daughter just died from cancer. And, frankly, being a woman coming up through the medical school system in the 1960s and ‘70s because women were truly discriminated against then. My response is not depression, it’s what I call the “O-3 model:” outwork, outsmart and outlive them!

Dr. Andreasen served as editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Psychiatry for 13 years. She also served on the DSM-III and DSM-IVtask forces, developing the first widely used scales for rating the positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Today, she is the director of the Psychiatry Iowa Neuroimaging Consortium at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Read more about Dr. Andreasen at


Madness and Genius

There is an age-old consensus that genius and madness are intimately aligned. Aristotle believed that “Those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendenscies towards melancholia.”  Centuries later, Seneca stated that “no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.”  Nearly two millennia after Aristotle, the same conclusion was drawn by two leading English dramatists  Shakespear wrote, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/Are of imagination all compact.”  And Dryden held, “Great Wits are sure to Madness near ally’d,/And thin Partitions do their Bounds divide.”

With the coming of the Romantic age around 1800, the notion of the mad genius had become virtual dogma.  (pp 284)