Obituary: Bernard Becker, former head of ophthalmology, 93

Bernard Becker, MD, professor emeritus of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died at his home Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, after a long illness. He was 93.

A world expert on glaucoma, one of the leading causes of blindness in the world, Becker contributed much to treating the illness. Perhaps most notable was his introduction of the drug acetazolamide to treat the disease. His laboratory made many contributions to the understanding of the biochemistry and physiology of glaucoma. In addition, he was the co-author of the first two editions of Diagnosis and Therapy of the Glaucomas, one of the classic textbooks in ophthalmology.

Becker joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1953 and served as head of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences from his arrival until 1988. 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.

Under his leadership, the department became internationally known for exceptional research and teaching. Many of the residents who trained with Becker now serve as department heads or hold other prominent positions in academic ophthalmology throughout the world.

“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.”

Among his numerous other contributions, he chaired the committee that oversaw the design and construction of the medical library, completed in 1989. It was renamed the Bernard Becker Medical Library in his honor in 1995. He was a collector of rare medical books, all of which he donated to Washington University’s rare book collection.

An internationally recognized expert on the diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma, Becker received myriad awards and gave lectures throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. Among the awards: 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.

Becker when he headed the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences

Becker was instrumental in shaping 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 addition, he was 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.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Becker attended Princeton University and then Harvard Medical School. 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.

He is survived by his wife, Janet, to whom he was married for 63 years; and his children and their spouses, Stephen Becker, John “Jack” Becker and Nancy Reynolds, Bernard and Mary (Ballard) Becker, William and Jann (Mason) Becker, and Robert and Kathryn (Rund) Becker; his sister, Constance Becker Lazarus; sister-in-law, Judith Rosenwald; and 10 grandchildren. His daughter, Diane Becker, preceded him in death.

There will be no funeral, but a memorial service will be held on campus in several weeks. Memorial contributions may be made to the Deedee Becker Loan Fund at the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis. The fund provides interest-free loans to St. Louis-area nursing students with significant financial need. The Beckers and their friends established it in 1982 as a memorial to Diane “Deedee” Becker, a licensed practical nurse who died that year. Gifts may be made by mail at 8215 Clayton Road, St. Louis, MO 63117; by phone, (314) 725-2990; or online at