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The serendipitous life journey of neuropsychologist Julia Hannay

Dr. H. Julia Hannay honored with lifetime distinguished career award

Prof. Julia Hannay

Earlier this year, the International Neuropsychological Society, the main professional society of clinical neuropsychology worldwide, recognized the contributions of Dr. H. Julia Hannay to the field with its lifetime Distinguished Career Award.

“Few lifetime achievement awards have been given out by the Society,” said David J. Francis, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of psychology. “Recognition of a lifetime record of contribution to a discipline by one’s national and international peers is among the highest honors that a university professor can receive.”

Dr. Hannay calls her journey from a little girl born in Britain during World War II to world-renowned leader in the field of clinical neuropsychology “serendipitous.”

“I did not have any particular interest in psychology at all,” says Dr. Hannay, Associate Chair and John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Psychology.

After emigrating from Britain to Canada as a young girl, she began her college education at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

“My first year I studied business administration, but I thought that the only thing they focused on was making money,” she said. “I didn’t consider that the most important thing, so I changed to a general program where I could take more science and arts courses.”

After completing her undergraduate degree, Dr. Hannay decided to stay at the University of Western Ontario and pursue a Master’s degree in biology and then perhaps apply to medical school. However, the chair of the biology department would only accept her application if she agreed to pursue a PhD in biology.

Unwilling to commit to a PhD program, Dr. Hannay walked across campus to the psychology department and inquired about its master’s program.

“They told me I would have to take an additional year of courses because I didn’t have the prerequisites for their program having only taken introductory psychology, abnormal psychology and the psychology of exceptional children as an undergraduate,” said Dr. Hannay. “So I did that, and I really enjoyed it.”

So much so, she put aside her thoughts of medical school and enrolled in the PhD program in Experimental Clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario, their clinical program at the time. As part of her practicum, she worked at psychiatric hospital where she saw severe cases of mental illnesses.

“At that time, and in my opinion, I didn’t think that psychology could do much to help those patients,” said Dr. Hannay. “So I quit the PhD program. (This was the late “60s). I utilized my Master’s degree and went to work for a school board in Toronto. For a year and a half, I served 10 grade schools and three high schools.”

That experience taught her that she really enjoyed working with children, but that she needed a doctoral degree. In 1969, she moved to the U.S. to attend the University of Iowa and pursue a PhD specializing in child psychology.

She combined her psychology studies and her undergraduate biology interests by doing a postdoctoral fellowship in clinical neuropsychology with Arthur Benton, PhD, one of the founders of the field in the United States.

Armed with a diverse educational background, Dr. Hannay accepted a position with Auburn University in Alabama to run the Experimental Psychology Program and Labs, teaching child psychology, sensory processes and clinical neuropsychology and even undergraduate statistics.  The labs became the home for some of Harlow’s monkeys, often written about in introductory psychology textbooks, when they were brought from the Yerkes facility in Atlanta by Charles Rogers, PhD.

When the Director of Clinical Training became very ill, Dr. Hannay, a licensed practicing clinical neuropsychologist, was named Interim Director of Clinical Psychology Training and finished taking the clinical program successfully through accreditation its first time.

Dr. Hannay also feels fortunate to have been able to commute to the University of Alabama in Birmingham for six of her years at Auburn to work in the regional cerebral blood flow laboratory in the department of neurology.

After 14 years in Alabama, Dr. Hannay came to Houston in 1987. The University of Houston’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center was a major factor in her decision to become the director of the university’s Clinical Neuropsychology doctoral program.

“I thought this was an opportunity to take a sleepy little clinical-neuropsychology program and try to turn it into one of the top places for training clinical neuropsychologists in the country,” said Dr. Hannay. “I also knew I would have the opportunity to do research that I was really interested in.”

She enhanced her academic research by also working as an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at Baylor College of Medicine and as a clinical neuropsychologist in the department of neurosurgery at Ben Taub General Hospital as a collaborator and Principal Investigator on several National Institutes of Health grants and one from the National Institute of Rehabilitation and Research.

“I love it there!” said Dr. Hannay. “In Britain we had the health service and everyone could see a physician. You weren’t left out because you didn’t have money. I also lived under the Canadian healthcare system, where you paid some, but everyone could go to a physician and get treated without incurring a lot of costs. At Ben Taub, everybody who goes there will be seen.”  She is aware of the pros and cons of these various systems, however, and chooses to live in the US.

She has also conducted research on federal grants with collaborators at the University of Texas - Health Science Center Houston, Memorial Hermann Hospital, and TIRR.

Her research includes studying the neuropsychological consequences of traumatic brain injury, stroke, spina bifida, and other disorders. She is also known for her work in experimental neuropsychology including such areas ascerebral specialization and assessing cognitive functions in normally developing children and adults. Her book, Experimental Techniques in Human Neuropsychology, is still quoted.

Dr. Hannay directed the prestigious clinical neuropsychology training program at UH from 1987- 2010, which serves as a global model for specialty training in psychology.

“Dr. Hannay is a household name in our field. She has been one of the leaders of our field for the past three decades and has achieved all of the major successes – being elected president of the International Neuropsychological Society, leading the landmark workshop that established training credentials in our field (the Houston Conference in 1997) and contributing to the book that is the ‘bible’ in our field,” said Daniel Tranel, a professor in the department of neurology at the University of Iowa.

In 2012, Dr. Hannay received Esther Farfel Award, a symbol of overall career excellence and the highest honor the University of Houston bestows on a faculty member. She is only the fifth woman to receive the honor since the recognition was first awarded in 1979.

“Julia is a truly unique and remarkable colleague and we are very fortunate to have her in the department of psychology at the University of Houston,” said Dr. Francis.

A seven-year NIH research grant that funded research designed to reduce mortality and morbidity of individuals with severe traumatic brain injuries is about to conclude and Dr. Hannay says that after she finishes her teaching obligations this semester, she will take the summer off. She still has many graduate students conducting research, undergraduates to teach, and lots of research to publish.

“I’m going to think about what I want to do,” said Dr. Hannay. “I’ll still be a professor, but I will decide if I want to give free time to a clinic or to Harris County hospitals. I would love to be with patients and their families during the very worst times in their lives – when a loved one has a very, very bad head injury and is in a coma. That is when they could use my help. That would be ideal.”

- By Monica Byars