Tavistock Institute social sciences pioneer with brilliant psychological insight

Written by Tim Dartington

This article appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday February 20 2008 on p33 of the Obituaries section.

Isabel Ménzies Lyth, the only woman in the pioneering group of social scientists who formed the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London after the second world war, has died, aged 90. A distinguished psychoanalyst, she was also noted for her ability to apply her insights to groups and organisations, especially nurses and other health professionals.

Her 1959 paper, Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety, though controversial at the time, has had a continuing impact. In it, she showed how the stresses of nursing and the intimate relationship it demanded with patients, impacted on the organisation of care, unfairly leaving those closest to patients exposed to emotional pressures that more senior staff and managers were defended against. Her message remains relevant to NHS management today, and it was her regret that it had less influence than it should.

She was proud of her origins: born in Dysart, Fife, fourth child of a minister of the Church of Scotland and exposed early to psychological testing by the headmaster of her school in Kilcaldy. These influences came to fruition when, after graduating with first-class honours in economics and experimental psychology from St Andrews University, she joined Eric Trist, one of her psychology teachers, in addressing crucial issues of wartime Britain.
Trist got her a job with the War Office selection board, then employing new psychological testing methods to select officers, and she later joined the army's civil resettlement headquarters, helping former prisoners of war. She worked with psychoanalysts and psychologists thrown together by the needs of the time. They developed new approaches to individual and group work, owing much to the Northfield experiments with war-damaged soldiers who needed to recover a sense of their own authority. Northfield was a military hospital in Birmingham, where psychoanalysts, including John Rickman, Wilfred Bion, Harold Bridger and Tom Main, introduced radical therapeutic approaches. The Tavistock Institute, founded in 1946, became the peacetime base for many of these pioneers.

Isabel trained and became a highly respected child and adult psychoanalyst; her mentors included Melanie Klein and Bion. She was a formidable consultant in Tavistock group relations conferences, taking forward Bion's work on the understanding of groups and applying this to institutional life.

Isabel carried out major action research studies of the psychological needs of children in hospitals and day nurseries. In a painstaking, four-year study of the cot unit in a major hospital, She continued to battle indiscriminate care-giving, and helped the ward sister and other staff to make the shift - radical at the time - from tolerating mothers visiting their children to accepting fully a maternal presence at the bedside.

Her commitment to the application of psychoanalysis to everyday life was such that she could apply it to firemen ("the public think that we just squirt water"), to central heating systems (allowing "affectionate freedom" in the family) and to the maternal role in contemporary society - "birth is a reminder of death".

After 1975 Isabel moved to Oxford, where her links to the Tavistock Institute and the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London weakened, but she remained a powerful force for the application of theory to practice in therapeutic settings. In Oxford, her background as a social scientist, particularly her interest in changing the culture of institutions, was pertinent: she was a consultant to the weekly staff group at a rehabilitation unit for disabled psychotic patients. Initially distrustful of, and resistant to, examination of their experiences, the staff came to value her support, and she noted that "the ward felt more lively, and the patients more like people, as the staff talked about them. It became safer to talk more openly about violence, and the problems they had to manage".

In retirement, she continued to offer supervision and her advice could be trenchant: "Why don't you resign?" In 1997 she was honoured with a doctorate from the University of East London. Among Bion's most quoted comments was that he would be "loaded with honours and sunk without a trace"; but Isabel's reputation, like his, will survive to inspire others.

Her husband, Oliver Lyth, also a psychoanalyst, died in 1981.

· Isabel Menzies Lyth, psychoanalyst and social scientist, born September 12 1917; died January 13 2008