A master with his hands, Joseph F. Beck was always looking for new ways to solve old problems. During his years as a dentist, he patented a compound that sped up root canal procedures and also improved upon dental impression materials.
His gifted hands reached beyond dentistry, though, and when a friend who worked as a bank teller confided the fear she experienced during a robbery, Dr. Beck built a prototype for an alarm system controlled by an electronic eye. After watching women struggle to lift bulky strollers into subway cars, he came up with ideas for more mobile designs.
“He produced some early sketches for strollers that could collapse down in a second,” said his son Bruce of Newton. “He didn’t get that patent, but he was always thinking of these new ideas. He always wanted to fix problems.”
Dr. Beck, who ran dental practices in Newton and Brookline for more than 35 years, and had formerly lived in Newton, died in his sleep Aug. 17 in his Brookline apartment. He was 92 and had been diagnosed with dementia.
Born in the small village of Rozwadow, Poland, in 1921, he was a son of Samuel Joshua Beck, who owned a large, prosperous brickyard outside of town. His family’s home was one of the first in Rozwadow to receive electricity. As a boy, Dr. Beck enjoyed school, studied Latin, and swam in the San River.
His mother, Basha, died of a heart condition when he was 7. Afterward, his grandmother, Chaya Gittel, helped raise Dr. Beck.
By the time he was 17, World War II was about to begin. Shortly after he turned 18, Soviet visitors in town warned residents that Nazis might soon invade. The Beck family was Jewish and had to act quickly, but Dr. Beck’s grandmother said she was too old to flee, and so he left with only his father.
“He was sad he had to leave,” said his daughter, Judy Baron of Sudbury. “When he spoke about Poland, he spoke as if he had left a part of himself there.”
Dr. Beck and his father kept moving through Europe during the war, bartering goods with farmers for cart rides and logging uncounted miles on foot. They scavenged leather and crafted it into gasket seals for kerosene lamps, selling the parts on the road. They made just enough money to get by.
“They would earn all their money on the road, always staying ahead of the Nazis,” Bruce said. “It was a day-to-day existence.”
Dr. Beck and his father spent six months at the end of the war in a Soviet resettlement camp in Siberia, where life was hard and refugees were given just enough to survive.
When commanders ordered all the refugees to cut trees for heat, Dr. Beck proposed instead that he build stoves with his father.
“They could make bricks by hand, and they had the formulas, so they convinced the commandant to build heating stoves in the bunkhouses instead,” Bruce said. “They warmed things up.”
After the war, Dr. Beck worked for the Joint Distribution Committee in Munich, relocating Jewish refugees.
Seeking his own escape from Europe, Mr. Beck contacted his brother Howard, who had emigrated from Poland to Massachusetts in 1930 to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He sponsored Dr. Beck, who secured passage to the United States in 1949.
After a short stint serving up sandwiches at a deli in Brookline’s Cleveland Circle and working as a plumber’s assistant in Boston, Dr. Beck attended medical school at the University of Nebraska. While living in Nebraska, he married Rosamond Libby, who is known as Arbee, in 1953. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1977 and she now lives in Boston.
Dr. Beck spent two years completing prerequisite courses in Nebraska before returning to Massachusetts, where he attended the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and graduated in 1958.
After a few years working for other dentists, Dr. Beck took out a bank loan in 1960 to open his own practice in Newton.
“He was so ecstatic that he had the freedom to start this business,” said his son Jerome of Baltimore. “He would always chuckle when people would talk about the wonders of Fidel Castro. He would say, ‘Communism always looks good in the dictionary, but when governments get involved, it doesn’t work.’ ”
While operating his practice, Dr. Beck taught dentistry at the Harvard and Tufts dental schools. The majority of his patients were from Brookline and Newton, but some traveled from New Hampshire . Patients appreciated his skill and his ability to make them feel comfortable.
“He worked very hard, and was a good dentist,” Judy said. “People heard about his skills mostly through word of mouth, no pun intended.”
A service has been held for Dr. Beck, who in addition to his two sons, daughter, and his former wife leaves another son, Dan of Brockton; a half-brother, Isaac of Weston; and three grandchildren.
After more than 35 years as a dentist, Dr. Beck scaled down the number of patients he treated and gave up his office space in 1995, but he could not completely set aside dentistry.
“He was mostly retired, and I started seeing another dentist,” Jerome said. “But I found out from my new dentist that he was renting space from her for a few remaining patients. He was always working.”