by LESLIE CHURCH
There has always been a fine line between madness and genius. As a clinical psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison has been able to examine that line from a scientific perspective; and as a writer, she has shared both her scientific and personal findings on mental illness with the public. For her work, Dr. Jamison was presented with the 2012 Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science at a ceremony in Caspary Auditorium in June. The award recognized Dr. Jamison’s 1993 book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which examines the relationship between artistic creativity and mood disorders.
Named for its first recipient — writer, educator and physician-scientist Lewis Thomas — the prize was established in 1993 by the university’s Board of Trustees and honors writers who bridge the worlds of science and humanities, shedding light on the philosophical and aesthetic aspects of science, and giving readers a greater appreciation for the subject. Past recipients of the award include Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond and E.O. Wilson.
Dr. Jamison, the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders and professor of psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has made extensive contributions to the field of psychology and is considered one of the country’s foremost authorities on manic-depressive bipolar illness. She is co-author of the standard medical text on the illness, which was chosen as the most outstanding book in the biomedical sciences by the American Association of Publishers, and she has written numerous scientific articles on mood disorders, lithium treatment, suicide and creativity.
Dr. Jamison is a pioneer in the movement to destigmatize mental illness. Her 1995 memoir, An Unquiet Mind, chronicles her own experience with bipolar disorder, and was cited by several major publications as one of the best books of the year. Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide was a national bestseller and selected by The New York Times as a Notable Book of 1999. Throughout her career she has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship.
“Kay encompasses the idea behind the Lewis Thomas Prize, which is to recognize someone who inspires others to think differently about a scientific issue,” says Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the university’s president. “Kay uses an empirical approach to address the relationship between artistic creativity and mental illness. Her work gives us a new, insightful perspective on mental illness.”
Dr. Jamison completed her undergraduate and doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was a National Science Foundation Research Fellow and UCLA Graduate Woman of the Year, among other honors. She also studied zoology and neurophysiology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Formerly the director of the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic, Dr. Jamison joined the faculty of the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1987.