Isabel Menzies Lyth

Obituary. Publish date: 23 January 2008. Source: The Scotsman. Location: Scotland

Isabel Menzies Lyth

Psychoanalyst and social scientist. Born: 12 September 1917, in Dysart, Fife. Died: 13 January, 2008, in Oxford, aged 90.

ISABEL Menzies Lyth was a distinguished psychoanalyst and social scientist and a pioneering figure among the founding group of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, when psychiatrists and psychologists who had worked together in wartime applied their skills and understanding of groups and organisations to the challenges of the post-war world.

Her achievements are recorded in her collected papers Containing Anxiety in Institutions, and The Dynamics of the Social. In the most famous paper, first published in 1959, The Functioning of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety, drawing on her experiences working with nurses at King’s College Hospital, she was able to analyse the dynamics of an organisation in a new way, exposing the hierarchy as protective of self-interest and self-doubt in managers and subordinates.

Isabel was born in 1917, the fourth child of the Rev Hugh Menzies and the only daughter of his second marriage. With a double first class honours degree in economics and experimental psychology, Isabel became a lecturer in economics at her university, St Andrews, where she remained from 1939-45.

A vacation job was at the War Office with Eric Trist, one of her psychology teachers. He arranged her transfer to the war office selection board (WOSB), which was employing new psychological testing methods for the selection of officers. Here she met future
colleagues such as John Bowlby, and Hugh Murray. She later joined the civil resettlement headquarters of the British Army, established to help British ex-prisoners of war resettle.

Isabel became one of the small group of creative and dedicated social scientists, including her mentor, Eric Trist, who, after the war, worked at the Tavistock Institute, continuing the legacy of applied psychological work begun during the war in military hospitals, officer selection, and civil resettlement . This understanding of individual and group psychology was then applied to the workplace in post-war Britain. Others in this group were Elliot Jaques, Harold Bridger and Wilfred Bion (who later became her

She became a highly regarded child and adult psychoanalyst in the Kleinian tradition, and continued to develop an equally distinguished career as a researcher and consultant, most significantly in the context of nursing and health care. She was a powerful staff presence at the internationally famous Leicester conferences on authority, leadership and organisation and was never afraid to explore the psychotic nature of groups. She would also get down on her knees with flip chart paper in the children’s ward at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, working with the nursery nurses to see how they might organise their rotas in the best interests of the children.

Applying John Bowlby’s theories about the need for attachment in early life, demonstrated by James and Joyce Robertson in their pioneering films observing young children separated from their mothers, Isabel worked on what she called “the art of the possible” in looking after the psychological needs of small children in hospital. This included locking the door against casual interventions of hospital staff. “The Tavistock says picking up children is wrong!” was the outraged protest. Not wrong, she replied; just not 50 times a day by all and sundry.

In her consultancy she believed in being a role model for her clients, offering clarity of thinking, reliability and integrity in action.
Her enthusiasm for action research was undiminished and she consulted to another major study of day nurseries in which staff learned to observe children closely and take individual responsibility for them in small groups rather than caring for them all indiscriminately.

Isabel was in demand as a psychoanalyst, therapeutically, often being asked by her colleagues to work with their children, and as a training analyst and supervisor to a wide range of therapists and students. In 1975 she moved to Oxford and married psychoanalyst Oliver Lyth, who died in 1981.

As a step-mother, she acquired a new family to add to the great-nieces and godchildren to whom she was devoted.
She consulted to several institutions, including the Cotswold Community, a residential school for adolescent boys, child guidance clinics and a rehabilitation unit for patients with intractable psychotic disorders.

A former analyst and, and later a member of a clinical supervision group, wrote:

“Isabel was feisty. With her deep insight into the ways of people she saw through defensive manoeuvres, but was full of compassion for the pain which lay below the defences. In her supervision groups, usually accompanied by a large and generous teapot, the person presenting was often startled by her insight into the material and her view about the patient, but was always treated with respect as someone whose work she valued, and left feeling helped and supported.”

Isabel continued offering highly valued supervision after retirement. She attended meetings of the Oxford Psychotherapy Society, memorably one on faith with the then Bishop of Oxford. She believed she would “live after my death only in the minds of those who love me”.