Women Who Made Pacific: Anna Berliner

Anna Berliner | Observer, Analyst, Researcher, Writer and Teacher

One of the most insightful thinkers and teachers ever to be employed at Pacific was Anna Berliner, a psychologist by title, but also an anthropologist, sociologist, optometrist and visual researcher.

“She made distinguished contributions to three different fields of knowledge and she reported them in three different languages,” noted M. Alpern, who delivered the first Anna Berliner Lecture at Pacific in 1978.

Born in 1888 in Halberstadt, Germany, Berliner lived a remarkable life. Her own typewritten CV covering the years up to 1946, which lists her student days at universities in Freiburg, Berlin, Leipzig, Tokyo, Berkeley, New York and Columbus, Ohio, along with professional experiences in Newark, New York, Tokyo, Columbus, Maywood, Ill., includes this note: "Interruptions in the chronological list of professional work are due to two wars, a revolution, the Japanese earthquake and research work.”

Among the interruptions were deportation from Japan to the United States in 1914, when her husband was interned as an enemy alien, and fleeing Germany in 1936 as the Nazis increasingly restricted and threatened Jews.

Some of her most noted papers and lectures included studies of the Japanese tea culture, perceptual issues that affect results of Rorschach tests, the aesthetic judgments of schoolchildren, the distortion of straight and curved lines in geometrical fields, the “atmospheric influence” of fonts in advertising, and “the psychological field as determinant factor in vision.”

Berliner was named a Lifetime Fellow of the International Council of Psychologists in 1963 and received the Apollo Award, a high honor from the American Optometric Association, in 1971.

"She taught by her example, by discussing what she had read and by how she responded to one's reply to her discussion. Her criticisms were always sharp and hard though never unkind, but her standards were high."
—M. Alpern

She came to Pacific as an associate professor in psychology in 1949, the university’s centennial year. She became a full professor and dean of the department before retiring in 1963. After retiring, she taught German to schoolchildren in Forest Grove.

Shockingly, she was murdered in her Forest Grove home in 1977 by a Cornelius teenager who had been going door to door to collect money in a fundraising scam. It appears from accounts that emerged from the murder trial that Berliner refused to give him money and threatened to call the police. He went inside her house and beat and stabbed her to death. The teenager was convicted of murder in 1979 and sentenced to life in prison, though he was later released.

“Always she taught,” Alpern said. “She taught by her example, by discussing what she had read and by how she responded to one’s reply to her discussion. Her criticisms were always sharp and hard, though never unkind, but her standards were high.”

Berliner, who also served on the College of Optometry’s Faculty Committee, taught College of Optometry Professor Emeritus Willard “Wid” Bleything ’51, OD ’52, MS ’54.

Berliner brought a valuable perspective to the study of optometry, Bleything said. She didn’t teach about the biology of the eye, nor the craft of optics; rather, she focused on the study of visual perception, or how the brain understands and processes the images delivered by the eyes.

“We learned a ton,” said Bleything, who recalled the way Berliner’s mind sometimes raced faster than her accented English. She would speak rapidly in English, pause, mutter in German, then ask “Eh?” to see if the students had understood. Often, said Bleything, they didn’t.

She and her husband sometimes joined students on a ski bus to Mount Hood, where they skied rings around the Americans. They were a classically European couple, he said.

Was she a pioneer?

“She didn’t know that, but she was,” Bleything said. “She stimulated a lot of good thinking about behavioral vision. She was a really good fit.”

Dr. Jennifer Coyle

Dr. Jennifer Coyle

Pacific University’s College of Optometry is led today by Dr. Jennifer Coyle, herself a highly respected and much honored educator. She is connected to Berliner through College of Optometry Professor Emeritus Willard “Wid” Bleything ’51, OD ’52, MS ’54, who was one of Berliner’s students.

Coyle received the Clarence G. Carkner Oregon Optometrist of the Year award and a Theia Award of Excellence in Education from Women in Optometry. She was the first woman to become president of the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry, was chair of the Oregon Optometric Physicians Association Advocacy Committee and of the Association of Contact Lens Educators, and serves on the board of the American Academy of Optometry and Women in Optometry.

Dr. Coyle also established The Smythe Fund in 2008 to support optometry students faced with hardships while enrolled at Pacific. It has supported 11 students since that time.


This story is part of a feature on The Women Who Made Pacific that first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.

Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019