Muriel Lezak, a neuropsychologist renowned for her work on the science of brain injuries, died on October 6 at the age of 94. Lezak penned a textbook in the 1970s that became the gold standard on the topic. She also changed the way injury was assessed, championing a model that centered patients’ descriptions of their experiences.
Lezak (née Deutsch), was born in Chicago in 1927. Her father was a furrier, according to The New York Times, and her mother worked in the business occasionally. She attended the University of Chicago, completing her undergraduate work in 1947, and stayed on for a master’s in human development, which she received two years later. While attending UChicago, she met a law student named Sidney Lezak, and the two married in 1949 before moving to Portland, Oregon and having children.
According to The Oregonian, Lezak then accomplished something that was rather exceptional for a married mother of three in 1960: she received her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Portland after six years of study. She also began teaching psychology at the university and Portland State College (now Portland State University). She often credited her ability to achieve these goals to the support of her husband, whom she called Sid, and his hands-on approach to parenting their children.
“That was an interesting time. Very few men had, or maybe still have, the comfortable sense of self to not feel threatened by a wife who is advancing,” Lezak said in a 2012 profile with UChicago Magazine. “But my sweetie wore me and my career like a rose in his lapel.”
In 1966, Lezak began working as a psychologist for the Veterans Administration (VA), caring for soldiers returning from Vietnam and those who had ongoing neurological trauma from previous wars. In addition to working with returning soldiers, Lezak also worked with wives who were adjusting to their husband’s post-war personalities and behavior.
In an effort to better help her patients, she searched for a comprehensive book that connected the dots between brain trauma and dysfunctional behavior. When she realized no such book existed, she went to work compiling her own research, and wrote one herself. Her book, Neuropsychological Assessment, was published in 1976 and soon became the gold standard for understanding the cause and effect of brain trauma and mental health disorders, as well as how to best evaluate patients. The sixth edition of the book is due to come out in 2023 and will be titled Lezak’s Neuropsychological Assessment, according to the Times.
In 1985, Lezak left the VA and began working at Oregon Health & Science University and in private practice. Though she left the university 20 years later, she kept her practice going until only a few years ago, The Oregonian reports.
Lezak recognized the head trauma that can occur while playing sports and tried to create awareness of the lasting damage of a concussion as far back as the early 1980s, decades before coaches and players from the youth level up to professional were adequately informed and trained to recognize the danger signs.
“I think sports need to change. Unfortunately, these contact sports are really dangerous,” Lezak said in the 2012 profile. “For the sake of our own entertainment, we’re asking a lot of these young people.”
Lezak is preceded in death by Sid and her son, the Times reports. She is survived by her two daughters and nine grandchildren.