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Dr. Diane M. Becker, a public health scientist who championed healthy community medicine in underserved areas, dies

Diane M. Becker was an expert in the management of coronary disease risk factors and lipid disorders.
Diane M. Becker was an expert in the management of coronary disease risk factors and lipid disorders.

Dr. Diane M. Becker, a retired Johns Hopkins public health scientist who championed healthy community medicine in underserved areas and led research that found a bit of dark chocolate could help the heart, died of metastatic breast cancer Wednesday at her North Roland Park home. She was 78.

She spent nearly 60 years at Hopkins — she arrived when she was 18 as a nursing student and later earned her doctorate there.

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Dr. Becker made partnerships with pastors from 250 East Baltimore churches to form the Heart, Body, and Soul Inc., an independent nonprofit organization designed to create health care delivery alternatives in African-American communities.

“She never looked at the exterior of a person,” said Pastor Brenda Tuggle of the Garden of Prayer Christian Church on Carswell Street. “She gave to the underserved and Baltimore’s African-American community and to those who had much less than she had.”

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Born in Warwick, New York, she was the daughter of Lucile Swartwout, a nurse, and her husband, John Smith Demarest, who ran a bar and inn at Greenwood Lake, New York. She was a 1961 graduate of Monroe Woodbury High School.

She was a 1964 graduate of the Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing. She was then nursing director of intensive care units in London, Boston, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

She met her future husband, Dr. Lewis C. Becker, at Hopkins. She was a nursing student and he was a medical student.

In an autobiographical sketch, she said she was “compelled by a desire to address public health of the communities she served.”

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She returned to Baltimore and earned a master’s degree and doctorate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Becker joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1984 and specialized in cardiovascular disease prevention research.

“It was dramatic to see a nurse jump into the medical school as an investigator. There are many Ph.D.s but there are very few who become faculty in the medical school,” said Dr. Myron L. Weisfeldt, professor of medicine at Hopkins.

Dr. Weisfeldt also said: “She had insight to think way ahead about the new toolbox of human genetics. She worked closely with her husband and the two of them together were better than one alone.”

She was the subject of news articles in 2006 when the research team she led reported that a daily dose of as little as two tablespoons of dark chocolate can decrease the tendency of platelets to clot in narrow blood vessels.

“Each day around 4 or 5 p.m., [she] takes the equivalent of half a Hershey bar — but it’s a dark, low-fat, low-sugar variety of chocolate. She dunks half of it in a skim, decaf latte, then chases the coffee with the other half,” said a 2006 Sun article.

“The reason I do it is because I’m so proscriptive about everything else in my diet. ... I look forward to that all day,” she said.

She was recognized as an expert in the management of coronary disease risk factors and lipid disorders.

With her husband, she founded the Johns Hopkins Sibling and Family Heart Study (now known as GeneSTAR), a family study of genetic and lifestyle risk factors for early heart attacks.

She also worked closely with CURE, Clergy United for Renewal in East Baltimore. She worked in community medicine and was known for her work to improve opportunities for community members to enter health careers.

“Her commitment to the community was tremendous,” said the Rev. Marshall F. Prentice, pastor of Zion Baptist Church. “She helped us realize there were immediate things we could do — such as smoking cessation — that could help us. She was able to challenge Hopkins as an institution. She also helped us in the community establish trust in Hopkins. She was a worker and she was a pioneer.”

In her research work, Dr. Becker led a study suggesting that low doses of aspirin may help prevent heart attacks in women at risk for cardiovascular disease. It challenged an earlier theory that aspirin helps men’s hearts more than women’s.

“Women are clearly benefiting from taking aspirin and should continue to take it to improve their cardiovascular health,” Dr. Becker said in a 2005 Sun story.

In 1995, she was awarded a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Institute of Medicine Federal Health Policy Fellowship.

She counseled medical students, post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty. She directed a federal health policy clerkship that allowed Hopkins medical students to work in congressional or executive branch offices in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Becker was named Professor Emerita of Medicine at her 2018 retirement.

She was an advocate and volunteer for children and devoted free time to the Henderson-Hopkins School in East Baltimore.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked on the Hopkins Academy’s fundraising effort for the school’s emergency programming fund which raised over $25,000 to provide groceries for the students and their families.

Dr. Becker described herself as “a passionate gardener and photographer and a lover of words and music.”

She is survived by her husband of 57 years, Dr. Lewis C. Becker, a cardiologist; a daughter, Kirsten M. Becker of Los Angeles; a brother, Martin J. Demarest of Albany, New York; and nieces and nephews.

An Anglican funeral Mass is being planned at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hollywood, California.

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