Obituary for Bernard Becker, M.D.: Pioneered glaucoma research; fought for civil rights | St. Louis Public Radio

Obituary for Bernard Becker, M.D.: Pioneered glaucoma research; fought for civil rights

Aug 30, 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Bernard Becker, M.D., a world renowned ophthalmologist who fought anti-Semitism as a student and, as a professional, refused to work in a hospital that would not provide care to African-American patients, died Wednesday (Aug. 28), at his home in the Central West End. He was 93.

Dr. Becker, professor emeritus of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Washington University School of Medicine, entered Princeton University in 1937 as the youngest in his class and on a full scholarship. In a 1990 oral history he said there were only six Jewish students, including himself, in his class of 400.

“The anti-Semitism was evident,” Dr. Becker recalled in that oral history. “Black [students] were unheard of at that time, and there were no women.  It was a very trying situation.”

Dr. Bernard Becker
Credit Provided by Washington University

When Dr. Becker joined the Washington University School of Medicine faculty in 1953, he said he faced no anti-Semitism, but there were many other challenges. The school was in dire need of a better curriculum, advanced training programs and modern facilities, including the old McMillan Hospital, the ophthalmology hospital that was connected to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Dr. Becker set about fighting for all of those things and something else.

“I was fighting another battle in the hospital,” Dr. Becker said.  “I insisted I would leave if they didn’t integrate the hospital. So, McMillan was the first hospital to integrate.”

Dr. Becker later brought three black ophthalmologists on staff.

Building a legacy

Dr. Becker joined the Washington University School of Medicine in 1953 and served as head of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences from his arrival until 1988. After establishing the Department of Ophthalmology, he developed a means of financing it, including securing endowed funds.

He instituted research programs, the first of which was glaucoma, and he became known as an expert on the disease, one of the leading causes of blindness in the world. His research on glaucoma helped develop methods for earlier diagnosis and therapeutic agents, including the drug acetazolamide.  

“I trained with Bernie Becker,” said Michael A. Kass, MD, the Bernard Becker Professor and current head of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. “In his long and distinguished tenure, he built one of the country’s best ophthalmology departments and created a model for residency programs. He was such an outstanding mentor and scientist that it’s difficult to overstate his contributions to the university and to science.”

His portrait hangs at the entrance to the Washington University Medical Library, which he supported and which is named for him.
Credit Washington University medical school

With several others, Dr. Becker literally wrote the book – the standard textbook – on glaucoma. He was the co-author of the first two editions of Diagnosis and Therapy of the Glaucomas, one of the classic textbooks in ophthalmology. He also helped develop the first eye bank in this area, along with a corneal transplant service.

Although research was his first love, he was duly proud of his work in patient care. He upgraded and desegregated the clinics and private care, and he established medical school scholarships for minority candidates and to recruit minority and women candidates for the residency-training program and for the full-time staff.

The bookmeister

Dr. Becker became almost as well known for his collection of rare books on ophthalmology as his work in the field.

He said in the oral history that his love of books began with his wife’s father.

“I was interested in books, but he was interested in collectors’ items,” Dr. Becker said. “What I did in Europe was to go through all the old book stores and find every conceivable thing available and ship it home.  I also did that in Baltimore.  Whenever I traveled anywhere I’d collect books.”

As the collection grew, he said he began to feel a bit selfish about possessing so many rare and sometimes unique books. He decided to share his treasures with others. He gave his collection of more than 600 volumes to the Washington University Medical School Library. He had overseen the design and construction of the library, which was completed in 1989.  It was renamed the Bernard Becker Medical Library in his honor in 1995.

Dr. Becker lectured throughout the U.S. and abroad. His myriad awards included the Helen Keller Prize, the Mildred Weisenfeld Award for Excellence in Ophthalmology, the Proctor Award, the New York Academy of Medicine Award, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Laureate Recognition Award. He also was a recipient of the Washington University Medical Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award and the School of Medicine’s Second Century Award.

“He was a philanthropist and he had accomplished some amazing feats,” said his son, Dr. William Becker, “some behind the scenes and quietly.”  

Dr. Becker was instrumental in establishing the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the world’s leading organization for ophthalmology research. He served as its president and also as director of the American Board of Ophthalmology. In was also a founding member of the Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology, and he played a vital role in establishing the National Eye Institute, where he served in many leadership positions.

In 1978, students, patients and members of the ophthalmology department raised funds to honor Becker. Those contributions now endow two professorships: the Becker Research Professor and the Becker Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology.

Serendipity

Dr. Becker was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended Harvard Medical School after Princeton University. He then served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps before completing his ophthalmology training at Johns Hopkins University, where he briefly served on the faculty before coming to Washington University.

Despite being acknowledged as a child prodigy – he could read and do math by the time he was 3 and he was always the youngest in every endeavor – Dr. Becker modestly claimed that his life was serendipitous.

“As I review my life, I realize that it was not planned,” he said. “Almost everything that’s happened to me resulted from the efforts of other people or outside forces.  It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do or intended to do.  It was a matter of opportunity or convenience.”

Dr. Becker’s parents, Jacob and Sylvia Becker, and a daughter, Diane Becker, preceded him death.

His survivors include his wife of 63 years, Janet, and their children, Stephen Becker of Daytona Beach, Fla., John “Jack” (Nancy Reynolds) Becker of Minneapolis, Bernard (Mary) Becker Jr. of Webster Groves, Dr. William “Bill” (Jann) Becker of Kirkwood, and Robert and (Kathryn) Becker of Sunset Hills; his sister, Constance Becker Lazarus of Boca Rotan, Fla.: and 10 grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned in several weeks. 

Memorial contributions may be made to the Deedee Becker Loan Fund at the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, 8215 Clayton Road, St. Louis, MO 63117, or www.sfstl.org. The fund provides interest-free loans to St. Louis-area nursing students with significant financial need. It was established by the Beckers and their friends in 1982 as a memorial to Diane “Deedee” Becker, a licensed practical nurse who died that year.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service. Washington University Broadcast Services contributed to this story.