History B.A. alum draws from historical training in his medical research

History B.A. alum draws from historical training in his medical research

When Nassir Ghaemi entered medical school following his B.A. in History at Mason (1986), he wasn’t sure how his history degree would figure into his career. He had a longstanding interest in history, which persisted throughout his medical training. But his work as a medical student, and then as a resident in clinical psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Massachussets, didn’t leave a clear professional opening—much less a lot of free time—to pursue history in a serious way.

After his residency Dr. Ghaemi moved into a series of research positions at university medical schools—first at VCU, then Georgetown, George Washington, Harvard, and Emory. His research interests within the field of psychiatry ranged widely, with a particular focus on the diagnosis and treatment of depression. During his academic career he published over 250 scientific articles and book chapters on these topics. His research accomplishments have earned him a number of recognitions, including being selected as a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. For the past fifteen years he has been Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University School of Medicine.

But even while accumulating these achievements within his research field, Dr. Ghaemi’s intellectual interests continued to span broadly outside of it. He began writing books, all of which are related to his training in psychiatry but whose purview and methodology extend beyond it, and most of which also bear the marks of historical analysis. His book, On Depression: Drugs, Diagnosis and Despair in the Modern World, places in historical context the contemporary quest for happiness and the tendency to see depression solely in terms of disease. In the words of one reviewer, the book “blends the wisdom of a seasoned clinician, the hard data of rigorous, original research, and the long view of a scholar steeped in humanities.” His most recent book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, considers well-known historical figures (including Napoleon, Lincoln, Churchill, Hitler) and explores the connections between their mood disorders and their leadership qualities. Even his book on the Biopsychosocial model in psychiatry, though clearly written for an audience of psychiatrists, uses historical context to narrate the formation of the biospsychosocial model and to develop a critique of it. And history is not the only field outside his own discipline that Dr. Ghaemi brings to the table: while building his career as a psychiatrist, he also completed a master’s degree in philosophy, which he also incorporates into his scholarship.

Dr. Ghaemi’s scholarly accomplishments outside of his clinical work as a psychiatrist are certainly a reflection of his own broad-ranging interests and his willingness to bring interdisciplinary perspectives to bear on his study of psychiatry. But his work does provide an opportunity to point out that the discipline of history is perhaps the best field of study for curious people (like Dr. Ghaemi) who have these kinds of broad or eclectic interests. Dr. Ghaemi says this about the broad relevance of a history major: "Everything has a history, so history is relevant to everything."

A historical method can be applied to the study of any area of human experience or activity—to politics, business, literature, and, yes, to mood disorders and psychiatry. Among the alums of the History program at Mason, Dr. Ghaemi’s specific professional profile and accomplishments are unique, but he is one of many whose experience as a history major in college led them down career paths that are not explicitly focused on history but which bear the hallmarks of their historical training.