David V. Becker, 86, pioneer in thyroid disease treatment

By Matthew L. Wald
New York Times / February 13, 2010

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NEW YORK - Dr. David V. Becker, a pioneer in using radioactive materials to diagnose and treat thyroid disease and a specialist on the thyroid damage caused by the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 1986, died Jan. 31 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86 and had continued his research work until last year.

His son, Daniel, confirmed the death, saying Dr. Becker had heart disease and other illnesses.

At his death, Dr. Becker was a professor of radiology and medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan and an attending radiologist and physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Dr. Becker was an early leader in the use of radioactive materials for organ imaging and treatment. In his research, he took advantage of the fact that one product of nuclear fission is a radioactive form of iodine, which is absorbed into the human thyroid gland just like ordinary iodine. By measuring the radiation emissions from a contaminated thyroid, physicians can get an image of the organ, and if diseased, larger doses of radioactive iodine can be used to destroy it.

After the explosion at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, huge releases of radioactive iodine spread for miles over grazing land for dairy cattle, resulting in high concentrations of the iodine in the animals’ milk. Many thousands of people, mostly children, were exposed. A study in 2005 linked about 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer to the accident.

After the accident, Dr. Becker led a team assembled by the National Cancer Institute that investigated the effects of the radioactive iodine on the thyroid. In 1996, he was awarded a White House citation for humanitarian efforts for the work.

Dr. Becker was active in a movement to stockpile a drug called potassium iodide in the event of a nuclear reactor accident. Potassium iodide is also absorbed by the thyroid gland, and if given to people downwind of an accident before the radioactive iodine arrives, it will saturate the gland and protect it.

David V. Becker was born in New York City, the only child of Albert Israel Becker and Miriam Rosner Becker. Dr. Becker began his work with radioactive materials while serving in the US Army during the Korean War. A graduate of Columbia University and the New York University School of Medicine, he established one of the Army’s first radioisotope laboratories at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Dr. Becker also went to Micronesia in the postwar years to study the health of people who had been exposed to radiation from atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs, said his son, Daniel. He examined the crew of a Japanese fishing trawler that had been in the vicinity of a test in the South Pacific.

Dr. Becker was founding director of the Division of Nuclear Medicine at New York-Presbyterian, where he worked for more than 50 years, having started there as a resident in 1954. A former president of the American Thyroid Society, he was a consultant to the National Cancer Institute for more than 25 years.

His first wife, Naomi Isaacson, a sculptor, died in 1974. He leaves their children, Daniel of Washington and Susan of Maplewood, N.J.; four granddaughters; and his wife, Lois Lunin.

Dr. Becker wrote or was a co-author of several peer-reviewed studies in the 1980s using cats, beagles, and other dogs. Indeed, Dr. Becker did extensive work on the effects of radioactive iodine in animals, often using rats for research, but not always.

James Hurley, a colleague at Cornell, recalled a case decades ago when a veterinarian in New York consulted with Dr. Becker after observing a prevalence of thyroid disease in pet cats. Dr. Becker took the cats to the hospital. “In the middle of the night,’’ Hurley said, “he brought them in and imaged them on the same machines used on humans.’’