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Green Career as Pioneer of IPM, Oscar Bacon
I love stories of people who just ooze passion! Oscar Bacon's story shows how passion for life and nature create a remarkable life, indeed.
He's chased aphids, lygus bugs and potato tuber moths; he's evaluated pesticides; and he's pursued predators, parasites and pathogens.
Oscar Gray Bacon, who will be 90 in November, did all that. And more.
During his 63-year association with the University of California, he taught classes at UC Berkeley; coordinated the conversion of the two-semester system to the quarter system at UC Davis; chaired the UC Davis Department of Entomology; and developed "The Natural History of Insects" into one of the most popular undergraduate classes on the UC Davis campus.
As a 41-year UC agricultural entomologist, he specialized "in the biology, ecology and population dynamics of insects associated with field crops." He pioneered the biological control course on the UC Davis campus and was instrumental in forming the Plant Protection and Pest Management Graduate Group. He is credited with co-authoring the term, "integrated pest control."
He worked on field crops, including seed alfalfa, potatoes and small grains, establishing a state, national and sometimes global presence (potato crops in Bolivia). He targeted the lygus bug, the main pest of alfalfa seed production.
When he retired in 1987, he took on other challenges: restoring antique cars and classic boats, and serving as a Coast Guard Auxiliary commodore in a unit that covered at that time northern California and parts of Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. For the past 12 years, he's volunteered as a docent at the Heidrick Ag History Center, Woodland.
That's not all. He's crafted furniture as fine as you'll ever see in a showroom and he's carved ducks so realistic you can almost hear them quack.
"I'm the jack of all trades," he says, "and master of none."
Absolutely not. As an agriculturist, entomologist, researcher, professor, administrator, mechanic, furniture builder, boating enthusiast and ag history docent, there's very little that this "Oscar of all trades" hasn't mastered.
Bacon, who lives in Davis, CA with his wife, Barbara, looks back upon his six decades with the University of California system like the author of a well-thumbed book.
When he joined the entomology faculty at UC Davis in 1953, it was part of the UC Berkeley Department of Entomology. The Davis faculty included Stanley Bailey, Richard Bohart, John Eckert, Harry H. Laidlaw Jr., W. H. Lange, Leslie Smith, Eugene Stafford and Frank Summers and himself. He is the last surviving member of the original faculty.
"The UC Davis department separated or became autonomous from UC Berkeley in 1963," Bacon said.
During his career, he hand-stamped an indelible mark on the agricultural and academic communities with his vision, passion and talents. Whether it was helping growers, researchers, administrators, faculty, Cooperative Extension specialists, farm advisors or students, he looks back with fond memories.
"I enjoyed it," Bacon said. "I've always been interested in agricultural things, the applied side of entomology."
Emeritus professor Robbin Thorp, a native pollinator specialist, remembers collaborating with Bacon on alfalfa leafcutter bees in the mid-1960s. "I always had a great deal of respect and admiration for Oscar as a meticulous scientist, outstanding teacher, leader and person," Thorp said.
"Oscar was a dedicated, considerate teacher who was comfortable working with grower groups, students or researchers," said Vern Burton, a retired Cooperative Extension specialist. "He was a meticulous researcher, consistently employing those principles presented in his 1952 publication resulting in more efficient use of control measures while reducing the pesticide load on the environment."
Bacon chaired the Department of Entomology (1967-1974) through rapid growth spurts, including the move to the newly constructed Briggs Hall in 1972.
Many academics remember him as a chancellor's assistant. In 1964 UC President Clark Kerr announced a plan to convert the entire UC system from two semesters to four quarters. UC Davis Chancellor Mrak asked Bacon to head the conversion efforts at UC Davis.
"We had 1687 courses, and they all had to be reviewed and shortened from 15 weeks to 10 weeks," recalled Bacon. The conversion effort required the efforts and cooperation of every department and faculty member. Remarkably, the conversion took only a year.
Who is Oscar Gray Bacon?
Born Nov. 8, 1919, he's a former farm boy with roots that stretched deep in the San Joaquin Valley and a spirit that soared from the depths of the Great Depression. He and his parents--he was an only child--farmed 60 acres seven miles from Sanger, Fresno County. He harvested grapes, figs and peaches, drove tractors, raised 4-H pigs, and renovated worn-out Model T's. Young Oscar attended school in a two-room schoolhouse. He graduated from Sanger High School, Reedley Junior College and Fresno State College, majoring in zoology. He planned a career as a ranger naturalist with the National Parks Service, but the federal agency had no openings. So he accepted a position with the USDA Dried Fruit Insect Laboratory, Fresno, as field aide. It proved to be a two-year stint. In 1943, his boss steered him toward entomology and encouraged him "to get a degree" at UC Berkeley and return to the USDA. In typical Oscar Bacon-fashion, he earned not one but two degrees from UC Berkeley. He completed his master's degree in entomology in 1944, and his doctorate in entomology in 1948.
And he never returned to his position in the dried fruit insect lab.
His major professor at UC Berkeley was the legendary entomologist Edward O. Essig (1884-1964), but Bacon worked more closely with Abraham Michelbacher (1899-1991). "Abe was like a second father to me," Bacon said.
He landed his first full-time job in entomology in 1946 as an associate in the agriculture experiment station. Upon completing his Ph.D., he became a junior entomologist and instructor. Bacon's first major crop work: controlling aphids in spinach. Then it was on to other crops, including sweet corn, seed alfalfa, potatoes, small grains, tomatoes and melons. During his career, Bacon became UC's "No. 1 Alfalfa Seed Insect Man." In 1987, the California Alfalfa Seed Production Board recognized him for 13 years of service. In 1975, the Pacific Seed Association, based in Los Angeles, named him "Man of the Year."
Integrated pest management specialist Frank Zalom, former vice chair of the department and a Fellow of the Entomological Society of America, has long admired Bacon as an advocate for agricultural entomology research. "Many entomologists may not appreciate that the credit for first using the term 'integrated control' is generally attributed to Abraham Ezra Michelbacher and Oscar Bacon, who in a 1952 paper in the Journal of Economic Entomology on control of codling moth mentioned the importance of 'considering the entire, entomological picture in developing a treatment for any particular pest.' " Michelbacher and Bacon developed an effective integrated control program of the important pests of walnut, Zalom said. They "described methodologies for selection, timing and dosage of insecticide treatments for the codling moth to preserve the parasitoids of the walnut aphid that had achieved biological control following their introduction to California."
"This was an important step in the development of the IPM paradigm and is still relevant," Zalom said. "I refer to it every year in my arthropod pest management class. I also appreciate his role in the development of the Plant Protection and Pest Management Graduate Group at UC Davis that produced many students who are working as pest management practitioners across the state and across the country."
In his personal life, Bacon is a husband, father and grandfather. He and his first wife, the late Dorothy Flagg Bacon, raised three daughters, Beverly and Gayle (both deceased) and Bonnie of Lincoln Hills.
Accolades follow Oscar Bacon like lygus bugs to alfalfa. The plaques that line his study in his Davis home attest to his significant contributions by a grateful and appreciative army of administrators, colleagues and students.