Laureation address – Professor Kay Redfield Jamison

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Laureation by Professor Verity Brown
School of Psychology
Wednesday 23 June 2010

Vice-Chancellor, I have the privilege to present Professor Kay Redfield Jamison for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Professor Jamison is an Author and Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

She has won many awards and holds many distinguished positions. To list just a few: Professor Jamison was the founding Director of the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic for a decade until 1987; she was listed in “Best Doctors in the United States” and was named the UCLA Woman of Science in 1987; she was selected by Time Magazine as a “Hero of Medicine”; she has received the Presidential Award of the Canadian Psychiatric Association. In 2001, she became a MacArthur Fellow, an award also known as a “genius grant” due to the significant – $500,000 – no-strings-attached research funding that comes with the Fellowship. In 2002, she was a Distinguished Lecturer at Harvard University and the following year she was the Litchfield Lecturer at the University of Oxford. She has also received many awards from patient groups – including the Hope Award from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the Silver Ribbon Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.

She has been given these awards for the excellence of her academic work. Her field of scientific and medical expertise is bipolar disorder, which is also known as manic-depressive illness. She has written more than 100 articles in the medical literature on mood disorders, suicide and psychopharmacology. Professor Jamison co-authored, with Dr Frederick Goodwin, the standard medical textbook Manic-Depressive Illness: bipolar disorders and recurrent depression. You might be wondering if a 1,200-page encylopaedic medical research textbook was also a cure for insomnia. However, the book has been acclaimed not just for the in-depth scientific content but also for the clarity of the writing. In 1990, the American Association of Publishers declared it “Most Outstanding Book in Biomedical Sciences”. It is unusual to find a medical text book that is written in such a way that patients and their physicians want to read it.

Professor Jamison completed her undergraduate and doctoral studies in southern California at UCLA. While doing an undergraduate pre-med course, she had the opportunity to take her Junior Year “Abroad” and chose St Andrews as her destination to study zoology and neurophysiology. She returned to UCLA to complete her BA and MA degrees, but then decided against a medical degree and instead chose to study for a PhD in psychology. She attributed this choice to having done her undergraduate research project in psychology and having developed an interest in the writings of William James, as well as to what she described as the “instability and restlessness of her temperament”.

She so impressed her tutors that she was named UCLA Graduate Woman of the Year and, on the award of her PhD in 1975, was offered a faculty position in the department at UCLA. She said she was particularly pleased that the job came with a “good parking space”.

In 1987, Professor Jamison left California and moved to the east coast to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and in 1993 she was promoted to Professor of Psychiatry – the first psychologist to hold the position. Throughout this period, Professor Jamison always had a particular love of Britain and she returned frequently for sabbatical visits to St Andrews, London and Oxford. She described these times as “a gentle and wonderful interlude”.

While Professor Jamison’s career was blossoming and she was being recognised by her peers as an accomplished academic, clinician and scientist there was something else going on which, at the time, she kept hidden. She later wrote “The gap between private experience and its public expression was absolute; my persuasiveness to others was unimaginably frightening”.

It was not until 1995 – twenty years into a very successful career and fully five years after publication of the seminal textbook – that her colleagues in the medical and academic communities, and her patients, would learn from her autobiographical book, An Unquiet Mind, that Professor Jamison is more than a scientific and medical expert on bipolar disorder: she is a personal expert too. She wrote An Unquiet Mind as a lucid, in some ways dispassionate and yet so honest an account of her own experiences living with bipolar disorder. The book was on the New York Times Bestseller List for five months and has been translated into fifteen languages.

In 1999, she wrote Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. This was also a national bestseller, also translated into multiple languages and selected by The New York Times as a “Notable Book of 1999”. It is also written with understanding and the authority earned by first-hand experience of suicidal thoughts and an attempt that nearly resulted in her death.

My words are inadequate to capture how she felt about St Andrews as a young woman here, with an illness that, at the time, she did not understand and did not talk about. Fortunately, I can read her words to you.

From An Unquiet Mind:

St Andrews provided a gentle forgetfulness over the preceding painful years of my life. It remains a haunting and lovely time to me, a marrow experience. St Andrews was an amulet against all manner of longing and loss, a year of gravely held but joyous remembrances. Throughout and beyond a long North Sea winter it was the Indian summer of my life.

When Professor Jamison returned to UCLA, at the age of 21, it was an abrupt shift in mood and surroundings and pace of life. But even at this time, despite causing increasing pain, her mood disorder remained unacknowledged and untreated. However, her condition was deteriorating and she described herself as “ravingly psychotic” within a few months of starting her faculty position at UCLA. In the years that followed, her manic-depression took over – and nearly took – her life. Fortunately, an academic environment is tolerant when creativity, genius and madness occasionally become muddled in one brain.

Professor Jamison is uniquely placed to speak about this disorder because she is a therapist who has got it and really does ‘get it’. Nevertheless, although it was clearly not easy to keep the issues hidden, it is not easy to ‘come out’ in this way either and it was not without cost. She had to give up her clinical practice, which she misses. On the other hand, she said: “I’ve written a highly personal book. Patients have the right to walk into an office and deal with their own problems, not with what they construe their therapist’s problems to be”. Although not seeing patients one-on-one, Professor Jamison’s wisdom and eloquence now touch so many more people – her books have sold over a million copies. Giving her book a 5-star recommendation, a patient with bipolar disorder wrote “no matter how good your doctors are or how understanding your family is, you feel as if no one really gets what’s happening to you.” But Professor Jamison does.

In 1997, Professor Jamison was made Honorary Professor of English here and, at the invitation of the Professor of English and poet Douglas Dunn, and with the wholehearted support of all of us, Professor Jamison now visits St Andrews regularly, to write and to lecture in the Schools of Psychology and English. As she wrote Night Falls Fast, working here in the University Library, she was sustained by the final line of a poem by Professor Dunn – from “Disenchantments”:

Look to the living, love them and hold on

A journalist said of her:

Jamison writes with authority, clarity and clinical reserve. When she takes herself into the territory where explanations are shadows and tragedy prevails, she takes hold of the pen of a poet. Powerful as her medicine is, her poetic accounting of this dark death is more affecting still.

There is no doubt that the scientific achievements of Professor Jamison are worthy of a Doctor of Science, but today we are pleased to recognise her literary accomplishments.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to scientific, medical and literary writing, I invite you to confer on Kay Redfield Jamison the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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