Oscar Bacon: The Oscar of All Trades
DAVIS—He’s chased aphids, lygus bugs and potato tuber moths; he’s evaluated pesticides; and he’s pursued predators, parasites and pathogens.
During his 63-year association with the University of California, he 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.
Oscar Gray Bacon, who will be 90 in November, did all that. And more.
As a UC agricultural entomologist for 41 years, 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.”
But wait. There’s more. The 6-foot-4-inch lanky Renaissance man with the easy smile has restored antique cars and boats, from rustic Model T’s to a 1964 mahogany Chris-Craft cabin cruiser. 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.
He is not only “Dr. Bacon,” but is also known as “Commodore Bacon” and “Docent Bacon.” In 1986-87, he headed a Coast Guard Auxiliary district that encompassed northern California and parts of Wyoming, Nevada and Utah. In 1996, he joined the docents at the Hays’ Antique Truck Museum, Woodland, which in 1997 merged with the Heidrick Ag History Center. He continues to serve as a docent.
“I’m the jack of all trades,” he says, “and master of none.”
Bacon, who retired as an emeritus professor in 1987, lives in Davis with his wife, Barbara. He looks back upon his six decades with the University of California like the author of his own well-thumbed book.
When he joined the entomology faculty at UC Davis in 1953, it was not a department, but part of the UC Berkeley Department of Entomology. At that time, the Davis faculty included Stanley Bailey, Richard Bohart, John Eckert, Harry H. Laidlaw Jr., W. H. Lange, Leslie Smith, Eugene Stafford and Frank Summers. 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.
Who is Oscar Gray Bacon?
“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in agricultural things, the applied side of entomology.”
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 Model T’s.
“Back then it seemed like nearly every farm had an old worn-out Model T along the fence lines,” he recalled. “A boyhood friend from a neighboring ranch and I would give a farmer a couple of dollars for his car and then restore it.” The Tin Lizzies purred back to life.
Young Oscar attended school in a two-room schoolhouse; grades one through four shared one room, and grades 5 to 8, the other.
Nature fascinated him. “I collected insects and watched birds and mammals and collected rocks and minerals.”
Oscar 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 a 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, following a year of study, and his doctorate in entomology in 1948.
His major professor at UC Berkeley was the legendary entomologist and aphid specialist Edward O. Essig (1884-1964), but Bacon worked more closely with another accomplished entomologist, 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. As a Ph.D., his starting salary was less than $5000 a year.
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.
“In 1953 I had the opportunity to come to Davis to develop my own programs,” Bacon said. “I was extremely grateful for that opportunity.” At the time, the UC Berkeley Department of Entomology offered a two-year “Farmers’ Short Course” on the Davis campus for students interested in farming. The career-oriented program was phased out in 1959.
“Stanley Freeborn (first chancellor of UC Davis) and his wife welcomed us to campus,” he said. “He was very gracious--a very nice person.”
At the time, the original faculty members included Richard Bohart (1913-2007), insect systematics and Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. (1907-2003), apiculturist. Today the Richard Bohart Museum of Entomology and Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility bear their names.
It was an era when secretaries typed manuscripts from handwritten notes; “office space” consisted of temporary buildings or renovated garages; and faculty (usually all male) wore a tie and jacket in the classroom. It was also a period of rapid growth and steady challenges.
In 1964 UC President Clark Kerr announced the plan to convert the entire UC academic system from two semesters to four quarters. UC Davis Chancellor Mrak asked Bacon to head the conversion efforts at Davis.
“We had 1687 courses, and they all had to be reviewed and shortened from 15 weeks to 10 weeks,” recalled Bacon. Remarkably, the conversion took only a year.
Entomologist Robbin Thorp, a native pollinator specialist and now emeritus professor, worked with Bacon. “I always had a great deal of respect and admiration for Oscar as a meticulous scientist, outstanding teacher, leader and person,” said Thorp, who collaborated with Bacon on alfalfa leafcutter bees in the mid-1960s.
“Oscar and his research associates, Dick James and Walt Riley, in collaboration with a grower, Dan Best in the Woodland area, designed and tested shelters to provide shade and ventilation for these relatively new pollinators for alfalfa seed production. The shelters were successful.”
“Oscar and his crew also tested pesticide effects on these bees and discovered a number of biological traits important to their management as commercial pollinators. Oscar co-authored the first Cooperative Extension publication on the alfalfa leafcutting bees with several of us.”
Bacon was considered 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.’ ”
“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.”
Vern Burton, a UC Davis-based Cooperative Extension specialist, now retired, said Bacon was “a dedicated, considerate teacher who was comfortable working with grower groups, students or researchers. 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 lived up to students’ expectations, mentoring students who went on to become noted insect scientists. “I enjoyed teaching,” he said.
“Dr. Bacon was what I expected a professor to be,” said former student Marcia Booth, now a senior analytical chemist in the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, UC Davis. “And he always wore a tie and jacket.”
Bacon meshed entomology with family; he is a husband, father and grandfather. He and his first wife, the late Dorothy Flagg Bacon, raised three daughters, Beverly and Gayle (now both deceased), and Bonnie, a surgical nurse who lives in Lincoln Hills with her husband, Steve Krisiak. Gayle served as the management services officer of the UC Davis Department of Anthropology before her death in 2004.
Accolades follow Oscar Bacon like lygus bugs to alfalfa. The plaques that line his study in his Davis home attest to his significant contributions, recognized by a grateful and appreciative army of administrators, colleagues and students.
Other highlights of his life:
Field-Oriented Entomologist: 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. “The lygus bug has no natural enemies, so we had to depend on insecticides. Then the lygus bug developed resistance to those insecticides.” Bacon developed economic thresholds, determining at what point the cost of pest damage exceeds the cost of pest control.
In 1944 Bacon showed that Catalina cherry moth, which infests Catalina cherry and large galls of the blue oak, is an important pest of walnuts in the Sacramento Valley. Today it attacks certain varieties of walnuts throughout the state.
Research: Bacon researched whether an 18-acre field of alfalfa seed would show the same yields without insecticides. Would predators and parasites be able to control the pests? His three-year study showed the organic field yielded 200 to 300 pounds per acre instead of the normal yield of 600 to 800. “Agricultural chemicals will be necessary on certain crops for some time to come,” he concluded. “The world’s food supply would certainly not exist without the control measures as we know them today.”
Teaching and Advising: Bacon initiated the biological control course at UC Davis. He advised scores of undergraduate and graduate students. He helped launch the Plant Protection and Pest Management Graduate Group Program. When he retired, Bacon received a plaque from the graduate program applauding his dedication, perseverance and accomplishments. It’s one of his cherished awards “because it’s from the students.”
Administration: His role as a chancellor’s assistant for UC Davis Chancellor Emil Mrak included the project of converting the UC Davis two-semester system to four quarters: completed in one year. As chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology from 1967 to 1974, he moved his department to the newly constructed Briggs Hall in 1972. Upon his retirement as chair, the faculty presented him a plaque thanking him for his “stewardship during a period when new teaching and research areas were initiated and when a great increase in the numbers of students enrolled in the department occurred has contributed significantly to the future of the department and to entomology.”
Heidrick Ag History Center: In 1996, Bacon began volunteering at the Hay’s Antique Truck Museum, Woodland, which later merged with the Heidrick Ag History Center. He’s known as “the friendly docent with first-hand knowledge of the farm equipment.” In his boyhood, he drove tractors similar to those on display. Today he volunteers once a week, more on special occasions.
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary: Bacon took up boating and fishing in 1956. In 1975, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. In December 1987, Bacon was elected commodore of a district that encompassed northern California and parts of Wyoming, Nevada and Utah. He taught boating safety, inspected crafts and patrolled the Delta waters for more than 25 years. The U.S. Coast Guard, the parent organization, awarded him a citation in 1988, praising his accomplishments and dedicated support.
Restoration: Bacon advanced from restoring rustic Model T’s in his childhood to renovating antique cars and boats. At one time he owned four boats and five cars. One of his prized possessions: a 30-foot Chris-Craft cabin cruiser, a 1964 model that he restored in 1973 and sold in 2008. He has also crafted furniture for his home and family.
All Things Entomological: Bacon served as president of the Northern California Entomology Society and held membership in the Entomological Society of America and the Pacific Branch of ESA.
Cooperative Extension: In 1987, the UC Davis Cooperative Extension (CE) group honored him for his public service, naming him “the best problem solver.” The group included CE specialists Vern Burton and Eric Mussen; research associate Wayne Johnson (deceased); and administrative assistant Shirley Humphrey.
Today you’ll find entomologists, past and present, lauding his legacy. Others praise his accomplishments as Commodore Bacon, Docent Bacon and Artist Bacon.
A master of them all.
One thing, however, has always puzzled and impressed his friends: How Bacon could tuck his 6-foot, 4-inch frame inside his Triumph TR3, a tiny British sports car he restored. “It looked like a giant getting out of a toy car at the circus,” recalled apiculturist Mussen.
He was a master of that, too.
--Kathy Keatley Garvey
UC Davis Department of Entomology