In this portrait, Bernard Becker, MD, holds the first comprehensive text on eye diseases and treatments, a rare 16th-century book from the extensive collection of ophthalmology texts that he donated to the School of Medicine's library, later named in his honor.
BY CANDACE O'CONNOR
IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, nearly everyone at the School of Medicine has heard of Bernard Becker, MD.
Many use the beautiful Bernard Becker Medical Library or consult rare eye books there from the well-known Becker collection. In the Department of Ophthalmology, which Becker chaired for more than 35 years, faculty members know well his landmark research on glaucoma. One member, David C. Beebe, PhD, is the Janet and Bernard Becker Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. But Becker is much more than a portrait in the library.
At 91, Becker is still a vital force in the lives of his former colleagues and residents, some 18 of whom went on to head ophthalmology departments of their own. Though wheelchair-bound from hip and vertebrae fractures, he is still highly alert and active on the computer, reading journals and sending articles to colleagues around the world.
“It’s a compulsion of mine. When I read an article, the first thing that occurs to me is: ‘My gosh, this is something so-and-so needs to know about,’” says Becker.
According to Michael A. Kass, MD, the Bernard Becker Professor and current head of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Becker’s greatest legacy is the people he trained and continues to influence. “He inspired us to pursue excellence, question dogma, and seek answers to important basic and clinical questions,” says Kass.
And Becker is still winning awards, though he modestly downplays them. The American Academy of Ophthalmology honored him with its prestigious Laureate Recognition Award in 2009. From the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), an organization he was instrumental in founding, Becker has received the Proctor Medal, the Friedenwald Award and the Mildred Weisenfeld Award.
But another legacy, and one that Becker values equally, is the work that he and his wife, Janet, have done to further social justice. He still uses his contacts to raise money for causes such as combatting homelessness, feeding the hungry, housing ex-offenders and offering scholarships to students.
“My wife and I were brought up Jewish, and we both faced discrimination,” he says of his commitment. “I was also brought up to like people no matter what their religion.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Becker was early, and excellent, at everything he attempted. As soon as he started school, he was promoted to third grade — and from then on was younger than everyone in his classes. After high school, he won a scholarship to Princeton University, where he was one of six Jewish students in a class of 400. He tutored wealthy young men to supplement his budget.
At Princeton, Becker became a chemistry major and worked with the head of the department, H.S. Taylor, PhD, in researching the structure of molecules, especially proteins and polypeptides. Taylor wanted him to continue on for a PhD in chemistry, but Becker felt that medical training would allow him to apply his research. So he went to Harvard Medical School on a scholarship and worked in the laboratory of A. Baird Hastings, PhD, head of biochemistry. With World War II under way, Becker finished medical school and his internship on a truncated schedule and served in the military.
Afterward, he might have stayed in biochemistry if not for a fortuitous meeting with Jonas S. Friedenwald, MD, a renowned histochemist at Johns Hopkins University. Friedenwald had a dazzling intellect, and when he invited Becker to Hopkins for his residency, Becker eagerly agreed. But he didn’t fully realize that ophthalmology was Friedenwald’s primary interest — and thus Becker began his migration toward eye research.
At age 30, Becker celebrated one of his happiest accomplishments: marrying his wife, Janet.
“That was an exciting time,” says Becker. “Friedenwald was a brilliant man, who even knew all about legal things — all about everything. When they needed advice on the U.S. Supreme Court, they called on him; in fact, Justice Felix Frankfurter used to come to the lab to visit with Friedenwald and talk about issues coming up before the Court.”
During the five years that he spent at Hopkins, Becker developed methods for diagnosing glaucoma and measuring aqueous humor, directed the residency program, did non-stop research and served as chief resident. At age 30, he celebrated one of his happiest accomplishments: marrying his wife, Janet, a Philadelphia-born Sarah Lawrence graduate deeply committed to civil rights.
Before his marriage, Becker roomed with fellow ophthalmology resident Lawrence Post Jr., MD, son of the part-time ophthalmology chairman at Washington University, Lawrence Post Sr., MD. Word got back to the School of Medicine about Becker, and at the end of his third residency year, Dean Robert A. Moore, MD, recruited him to head the Department of Ophthalmology, but Becker refused. When Moore tried again two years later, Becker accepted. At age 33, he was the university’s youngest department chairman.
Arriving in St. Louis in 1953, Becker faced some immediate challenges, among them building up the residency program, creating a strong research focus, hiring new faculty and forging a solid relationship with community physicians. At the same time, he took on important national roles: founding ARVO, serving as first editor-in-chief of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, and traveling the country to convince medical schools they should establish full-time ophthalmology departments with NIH funds.
Horrified by the segregation that he found in McMillan Hospital, he adamantly insisted that it be integrated, and he also appointed African Americans to the staff, among them Howard P. Venable, MD. At the same time, Janet Becker was working in the community, forming organizations such as Beyond Housing.
“In those days, every floor in the hospital had cigarette machines — and this was the institution that had established the link between smoking and lung cancer!” says Becker.
“I was a rebel, and I insisted they take the machines off the floors. The only one who would support me was Carl Moyer, head of surgery, because there was so much money to be made from them.”
He also managed to continue his own research, amassing some 500 publications and writing a well-known textbook, Diagnosis and Therapy of the Glaucomas, still in use today. Altogether he served for 35 years as department chair, stepping down in 1988. Next he took on the project of remaking the inadequate library, later named for him in recognition of his work. For years he had been buying precious eye texts, and he donated the entire 600-volume collection to the archives.
Among his and Janet’s five living children, one is also an ophthalmologist — William L. Becker, MD 87 — while the other four sons include a teacher, artist, musician and craftsman. The couple also has 10 grandchildren. But Becker has other “children,” too, he says. “Teaching people to do research and take care of patients spreads your ability to do good. And that carries over.”
The Becker Collection of books, manuscripts and graphics, housed in the Becker Library’s Archives and Rare Books, includes many rare items chronicling the parallel evolution of ophthalmology and scientific optics. See some of the rarest, most unusual or valuable examples from the collection: VIEW SLIDESHOW