Becker's very special collection

Selections by Martha Riley, librarian. Photos by Robert Boston.

Visitors to Bernard Becker Medical Library are greeted by the man himself, in a manner of speaking.

Near the library entrance hangs a large portrait of Bernard Becker, MD, painted by St. Louis artist Gilbert Early, a graduate of Washington University School of Fine Art in 1959.

Although the artist might just as well have shown Becker studying the latest ophthalmology journal, in this portrait Becker holds a rare old book, a hint that his passion for the history of science ran as deep as his devotion to research in eye health.

That passion for the history of the printed word, as well as images that revealed the workings of the human body, drove Becker's quest to collect books during his travels in Europe.

"My wife’s father was a book collector," says Becker, professor emeritus of ophthalmology and visual sciences. "When we got married, I would visit him and admire his collection, and he said: 'You’re traveling around the country so much, why not look in and see what they have in the way of eye books?' I did, and I started to collect them."

That burgeoning interest grew into a serious avocation. Becker became well-known at certain book shops, and staff often would put aside books just for him. Over the years, his collection grew, but the books themselves became harder and harder to find.

"At that time, you could buy books for a little — if you spent $100, $150, it was a lot — so I collected these over a period of time," says Becker. "The market is limited; not many places have rare eye books. And they’ve become more and more rare, because any time they get into a private library or a collection, they are gone. And every time you put a book into the Library of Congress or Johns Hopkins or Harvard, that raises the price for everyone else."

True to his generous nature, Becker didn't want the books he collected to be put away, unavailable for public viewing. That's why, in 1975, he donated his collection to the School of Medicine. Today, the Becker Collection in Ophthalmology is a major component of the library's internationally recognized rare book collection and includes more than 600 books and graphic depictions of ophthalmology-related material.

In 1995, the School of Medicine recognized Becker's many contributions to science and medicine by renaming its renovated medical library in his honor. Becker served as chair of the library committee during its redesign and development, and he was devoted to ensuring that the facility became the hub of the medical school complex. The Bernard Becker Medical Library, then as now, remains at the forefront of technology application, providing state-of-the-art information management to support research, teaching and patient care at the medical center.


View an expanded exhibit of books and prints from the Bernard Becker Collection in Ophthalmology and Optics: December 2011 through June 30, 2012

Bernard Becker Medical Library
Robert J. and Helen H. Glaser History of Medicine Gallery, 7th floor
660 S. Euclid, St. Louis, MO

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