Skip Navigation Celebrating America's Women Physicians
Changing the face of Medicine Home Physicians
Resources Activities



Dr. Lissy Feingold Jarvik

Year of Birth / Death

1924 - 2021

Medical School

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine



Career Path

Dr. Lissy Feingold Jarvik


In the early 1950s, Dr. Lissy Jarvik's research at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University, demonstrated that senility was not the inevitable consequence of advanced chronological age. Instead of being part of 'normal' aging, senility was a disorder associated with disease.
While at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1972-1975, Dr. Lissy Jarvik established the first inpatient psychogeriatric unit and the first such unit within the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dr. Lissy Jarvik was named 'Distinguished Physician' in the Department of Veterans Affairs.


I had a favorite uncle who was an old-time family physician with whom everybody fell in love. Well, I fell in love with him, too. When I was about ten, I used to go on home visits with him. I decided to become a physician like him—always there to help people. In fact, he also inspired four of my cousins—all women—to become physicians, too. Books also inspired me. Microbe Hunter by Paul de Kruif and Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis were two of my favorites.


As a pioneer in the field of neuropsychogeriatrics, Dr. Lissy Feingold Jarvik was one of the first physicians to demonstrate that mental decline was not a part of the normal aging process. Her studies focused on the mental changes that occur in both healthy and physically impaired people as they age. She also established the first inpatient psychogeriatric unit at the University of California, Los Angeles and established the first such unit within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Born in the Netherlands in 1924, Lissy Feingold attended Hunter College in New York City, graduating cum laude in 1946, and earned both master's and Ph.D. degrees in psychology at Columbia University in 1947 and 1950. While a doctoral candidate at Columbia, Dr. Jarvik began her now-famous twin study. This dissertation, still the only one of its kind worldwide, grew into her life's work. Intending to "disentangle the whole question of genetics and the environment in aging," Dr. Jarvik followed 134 pairs of identical and fraternal twins who were at least 60 years of age at the study's outset.

Along with her mentor, Dr. F. J. Kallman, Dr. Jarvik traveled throughout the State of New York, meeting with twins to record their medical and psychological histories. Throughout the next twenty years, she continued to follow the twins. Among other things, Dr. Jarvik recorded their changes in mental functioning, survival trends, cancer rates, and general health history. The study's findings demonstrated a strong genetic component of the aging process and a tie between physical and mental impairments in aging.

After completing her Ph.D., Dr. Jarvik enrolled at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, completing her M.D. in 1954. She then returned to New York and continued her geriatric research at Columbia's department of psychiatry and at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. In the early 1970s, Dr. Jarvik headed west, becoming professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). There, she established the first inpatient psychogeriatric unit and the first course in behavioral sciences for first-year medical students. She recruited a diverse faculty from many departments throughout UCLA to participate in this introductory course.

From 1987 to 1993, Dr. Jarvik served as 'Distinguished Physician' in the Department of Veterans Affairs. She traveled throughout the United States in order to meet and interact with physicians in various specialties, nursing staff, and other health care workers, as well as mental health specialists, researchers, and administrators, so that she could heighten their awareness of the needs of older veterans (mostly World War II veterans). She visited more than half of the VA Medical Centers at least once and made numerous trips to VA Headquarters in Washington, DC, to consult on strategies and implementation. Through face-to-face meetings, rounds, lectures, seminars and workshops, she was able to provide information, increase interest in the older veterans and facilitate the start of new training, treatment and research programs throughout the VA system.

In 1988, with Dr. Gary Small, Dr. Jarvik co-authored Parentcare: A Commonsense Guide for Adult Children. Written for the "sandwich generation"—adults caring for both their children and their parents at the same time—the book was one of the first guides of its kind. Dr. Jarvik explained, "The book came about because I saw in research subjects how involved the children became in their parents' healthcare and their parents' lives. I learned how they were committed to helping their parents, how they were bewildered by their new unexpected responsibilities and the unforeseen changes in their relationships with their parents."

Dr. Jarvik had been at the forefront in the use of investigational drugs for treating geriatric patients with both Alzheimer's disease and major depressive disorders. She was also among the first to emphasize the role of micro-tubules in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease, and to use psychotherapeutic approaches to the treatment of geriatric patients.

While professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr. Jarvik summed up her life in academic medicine, "My career in aging spanned the field from mental changes, to psychiatric aspects, to genetic changes, chromosomal changes, also drug treatment and psychological treatments." She added that throughout her career, it was the elderly patients, their spouses, children, siblings and other relatives who made it possible for her to pursue her research, and who contributed so much to the increasing knowledge base on aging.

For her "distinguished contributions in the general field of psychiatry and mental health," Dr. Jarvik was the first recipient of the American College of Physicians William C. Menninger Memorial Award in 1993. She was also the first woman psychiatrist and the second woman ever appointed a distinguished physician by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a title she held from 1987 to 1993, after which she became emeritus.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Trying to get into medical school was my biggest obstacle. I was a woman; we didn't have any money; and I was a refugee—a fatal combination at the time if you wanted to go to medical school. I decided that since it was impossible to get into medical school, that I would get my Ph.D. first. I received my Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University. I was able to work my way through my Ph.D. with a full-time job. After that I got into medical school.

How do I make a difference?

I make a difference in two ways. First, through my research and research findings. And second, through mentoring students, trainees, and fellows. While I have not exclusively concentrated on mentoring women, I have certainly tried to find women for whom I could be helpful in their careers. As far as mentoring is concerned, I think I have made a big difference in the careers of many women. I was able to do so because I could share with them the sophisticated understanding and useful strategies I had learned from my husband, Murray Jarvik, and his colleagues in the "old boys network" that dominated science and academia.

Who was my mentor?

As I said, my uncle was my earliest mentor. In addition, Dr. Franz Kallmann, one of the founders of psychiatric genetics, was my mentor. I worked for him in the twin studies while I was studying for my Ph.D. and while I was in medical school. Among early human geneticists, Dr. Kallmann was a very powerful figure.

How has my career evolved over time?

Certainly when I was very young, I saw myself as a family physician. I never thought of academic medicine, even in medical school. I had a rotating internship rather than any particular specialty. Yet somehow I drifted into academia. I guess because I had a research background and knew about research. People would tell me that it was a waste if I didn't use that. Opportunities became available. And I spent my life in academic medicine and medical education without ever having a private practice. And most important of all, I was able to pursue my career thanks to the love and support of my family—my husband and children who tolerated my absences, and my mother who stepped in whenever I was out, or just needed help.

Photo Gallery