Internationally known Oregon Neuropsychologist, Muriel Lezak, has passed away at age 94. Dr. Lezak was an accomplished and revered neuropsychologist, known for pioneering a system for testing and quantifying cognitive deficits after a brain injury. Her work laid the groundwork for better understanding traumatic brain injuries, and will be remembered as one of neuropsychology's most important figures.
Born August 26, 1927 in Chicago, Lezak started working as a clinical psychologist in the 1940s, well before neuropsychology was a developed field of psychology. She married attorney Sidney Lezak (later US Attorney for Oregon) in 1949. She obtained her doctorate in psychology from the University of Portland. In the 1960s, while working at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Portland, she investigated cognitive and behavioral changes in veterans from World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. In an oral history provided to Oregon Health Sciences University in 2016, she noted that she was the psychologist for the neurology, neurosurgery and rehab departments at the VA. After being confronted with patients who had sustained frontal lobe damage (negatively impacting their creativity, reasoning, the ability to relate to people and the ability to plan and organize), she noted that there were no books on the topic of testing people with traumatic brain injuries.
Recognizing the personal devastation to brain injury survivors and their spouses, Lezak started a support group at the V.A. for military wives to cope with the altered behavior of brain injured soldiers. It was an early version of brain injury support groups common today. In an interview with OHSU, she noted "The people they were married to were no longer there. It was somebody else who was similar, looked pretty much the same, but was no longer the person they were able to love and interact with comfortably.”
After leaving the V.A. in 1985, she became a Professor of neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry at OHSU until 2005. She raised a warning about traumatic brain injuries in sports in 1982, later publishing research warning of second impact syndrome and the potential for serious injury after a second concussion. In an interview with the New York Times, Lezak noted "I think there’s some risks you just don’t take, because if you do have damage to the brain, there will be some residuals, and they won’t go away." After years of catastrophic brain injuries after children were returned to sports too quickly after a concussion, laws were passed, preventing return to play while the athlete was still exhibiting signs of traumatic brain injury, including Zachary Lystedt's Law in Washington, and Max's Law and Jenna's Law in Oregon.
Dr. Lezak is best known for her book, Neuropsychological Assessment published by Oxford University Press, widely accepted as the authoritative book in the field of brain injury testing. The book, first published in 1976, comprehensively reviewed the major disorders of the brain and the techniques, tests and procedures used to evaluate brain injury survivors. The book was widely adopted internationally, and Lezak wrote five editions of the book. A sixth edition, scheduled for publication in 2023 will be renamed "Lezak's Neuropsychological Assessments" in her honor. In 1996, she received the Distinguished Neuropsychologist Award from the National Academy of Neuropsychology. Dr. Lezak was Emeritus Professor of Neurology at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine.
Our brain injury lawyer, Aaron DeShaw, worked with Dr. Lezak regularly in Oregon traumatic brain injury cases in the early part of his legal career, prior to her retirement. Two of DeShaw's brain injury client's clinical cases show up (with names redacted) in the 5th Edition of Dr. Lezak's book. The two remained in contact over the years after her retirement as she worked with the Oregon Health Sciences University Brain Institute - discussing new treatment methods for traumatic brain injuries. She was particularly encouraged by the improvements some of the patients were seeing in their visual system damage, with optometric visual rehabilitation. As a long time board member of the Brain Injury Alliance of Oregon, DeShaw introduced Dr. Lezak multiple times at annual conferences, including in 2013 when she received the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dr. Muriel Lezak, and her efforts on behalf of brain injury survivors, will be greatly missed.