Muriel Lezak: Trailblazing Neuropsychologist

This post comes from River Freemont, Student Archives Assistant in the Historical Collections & Archives.

Muriel Lezak pictured in black and white, seated, wearing a white collared shirt and grey cardigan
Dr. Lezak pictured at the 1992 Nebraska Symposium on Motivation

Dr. Muriel Lezak spent her life seeking to understand the nature of behavior and brain injury, so when she went to see the 1987 Coen brothers’ film, “Raising Arizona,” she walked out of the theater in disgust. Having seen the impact of brain injury on a person’s family and their quality of life, Dr. Lezak didn’t think the excessive head hitting in the film was very funny. In fact, she ascribed some of the incredulity that patients’ families often exhibited when faced with the severity of their loved ones’ injuries to depictions of head injury in popular culture.

Dr. Lezak came to Marquam Hill in 1966, when she began working at the Veterans Administration Hospital as a clinical psychologist. She worked in neurology, neurosurgery, and rehabilitation, where she witnessed the influence of brain injury on the behavior of her patients. She discovered that the families of these soldiers were an important resource in assessment, because they had a clear picture of who the person was and how they behaved before their injury. She also felt strongly that the practice of assessment should be more humanistic, choosing tools based on the needs of the patient, rather than a standard battery.

In 1976 she published Neuropsychological Assessment, a book that has been called “the bible of neuropsychology,” (currently in its fifth edition) launching her into a career of writing, teaching, consulting, and world travel. Dr. Lezak’s authority on brain injury assessment also led her to serve as an expert witness in court cases. She performed examinations of patients who had been injured on the job, as well as patients accused of a crime. She also developed her own diagnostic tools, including the Tinkertoy Test in 1982, and the Portland Adaptability Inventory (now the Mayo-Portland Adaptability Inventory, in its fourth iteration) in 1988.

Dr. Lezak’s papers, recently made available through OHSU’s Historical Collections & Archives, include an extensive selection of materials from her case files. These include neuropsychological reports Dr. Lezak wrote to lawyers who solicited her expertise in support of their client. In these reports, she gives her interpretation of the client’s medical history (particularly history of head trauma), her analysis of the results of tests performed on the client, and finally, her opinion of the level of impairment the client faced at the time of the crime, or how the impairment would prevent an injured worker from returning to work. The collection also includes drafts of Dr. Lezak’s publications, lecture notes from her many speaking engagements, and correspondence with colleagues.

In addition to materials created in her capacity as an authority in the field of neuropsychology, the collection also contains a considerable amount of photographs from Dr. Lezak’s world travels. While her travel was often initiated by consultation and speaking obligations, she was usually accompanied by her husband, Sydney.

Muriel had attended university, received her master’s degree, and her doctorate, at a time when society considered her primary responsibility to be her home and family. She had not considered medical school despite an interest in medicine, because she simply couldn’t see a way for a wife and mother to balance her personal life with a demanding career. In her first position as a clinical psychologist, she was “invited to leave” when she reached the six-month mark in her first pregnancy. However, Muriel quickly grew restless. Later, while in her doctorate program, she planned the arrival of her next two babies for the summer so that she could continue her courses uninterrupted. She took night courses and Sydney shared in the childcare duties.

In an oral history interview with the International Neuropsychological Society, Muriel laughed as she recalled how her husband “took a great deal of delight” in her professional life, “wearing [her] as a rose in his buttonhole.” The travel photographs in this new collection allow us to see how someone who was undoubtedly a professional dynamo also managed to make time for family, friends, and joy. Of particular interest to those curious about maintaining a work-life balance are the humorous and touching postcards Muriel sent home to her children.

Dr. Lezak passed away in October of 2021.


Review the Muriel Lezak papers on Archives West