Bernie’s ‘other’ library

Washington University’s medical library is named after Bernard Becker, MD (1920-2013), who served as head of the university’s Department of Ophthalmology from 1953 to 1988.  During his remarkable 35-year tenure as department chair, Becker established one of the most outstanding academic ophthalmology departments and residency programs in the country and became a world-renowned expert on glaucoma.

Born and raised in New York City, Becker attended Princeton University and then Harvard Medical School, both on full academic scholarships.  He was exceptionally intelligent and was known a voracious reader.  Becker is fondly remembered by colleagues, friends and library staff for his daily habit of browsing through the latest medical journals at the library that would eventually bear his name.  He chaired the committee that oversaw the funding, design and construction of a new library building for the School of Medicine. The building was completed in 1989 and renamed the Bernard Becker Medical Library in his honor in 1995. Today, Becker Library is regarded as one of the most comprehensive medical libraries in the country.

Becker’s “other” library is remarkable as well.  During his lifetime, he personally accumulated over 600 volumes of rare medical books on the sciences of the eye and light.  He generously donated his collection to the Archives and Rare Books Division of Becker Library so that it would be more accessible to researchers. His oil portrait, which hangs at the library’s entrance, features Becker sitting at a window overlooking his newly constructed library while holding his favorite book: a 1583 edition of Georg Bartisch’s “Opthalmodouleia,” which was the first comprehensive work on eye diseases and their treatments.

Bernie’s “other” library in his own words, from the preface to the 1983 edition of the “Catalog of the Bernard Becker, M.D. Collection in Ophthalmology at the Washington University School of Medicine Library”:

My love for reading and delight in browsing through libraries and rare book shops have occupied large segments of my free and travel time. A natural consequence of this hobby was the modest purchase of occasional gems that intrigued and interested me. This permitted further study at home in leisure moments. When the acquired items filled all available corners of my study, and even some extra bookcases, I found it necessary to develop an alphabetical list of authors. It never occurred to me, however, that this was more than just personal fun and an exciting hobby.

As the collection grew, I began to feel rather selfish about the possession of these rare and sometimes unique books and developed the need to share the experiences they offered with others. To my surprise I found I have accumulated over 600 volumes! It seemed most appropriate to transfer them to the Medical School Library. I am very grateful to the Medical School for providing me the opportunity to share my hobby and its delights with all who are interested.