Robert van den Bosch:

Environmental Hero, AUHS Class of 1939

By Harriett Burt


A few months ago, I was looking through an 85 year old history of Contra Costa County at the Martinez Museum while Andrea Blachman and one of her stalwart volunteers, Marlene Thompson, were rearranging shelves in the Borland Home’s ‘library’.  Suddenly Marlene held a book under my nose and asked “do you have any idea why we have this?” 

‘This’ was a copy of “The Pesticide Conspiracy” by Robert van den Bosch. 

“As a matter of fact,” I replied, “I do”.  Robert van den Bosch was a professor of entomology at UC Berkeley who was a disciple of Rachel Carson.  He became a developer of and advocate of biological control -- using natural predator insects to combat the insects that destroy agricultural crops instead of relying on potent chemicals such as DDT which already had impacted nature adversely in California and elsewhere.  Nowadays, in large part due to his research and advocacy, “integrated pest management (IPM)” has replaced chemical pesticides as the first line of defense on the farm and in the garden.  But at the time, the book was a bombshell that pulled no punches against the close relationship between chemical companies, universities including UC and farmers both large and small who had built reliance on chemicals to produce bountiful crops without admitting that there could be horrendous costs to the environment and the farm economy.

His book was published in the fall of 1978 to cheers from the nascent environmental movement and jeers from the chemical industry and others.  He relished the fight but unfortunately, shortly after the book was published, he dropped dead at age 56 while jogging.  His memory is honored to this day with a graduate fellowship at the University of California.  Had he lived, his name probably would be almost as well known here and in the international environmental community as Joe DiMaggio’s is in sports.

“Well, fine” you say “but you haven’t really answered Marlene’s question.”  Actually it’s simple…Robert van den Bosch was born and raised in Martinez, graduating from Alhambra Union High School in 1939.  Classmate Raul Lomeli remembers him as “a brain” who used mathematics to figure out the exact placement of studs on the popular beanies worn by fashionable high school students of the time (see Our Gang movies).  His Dutch parents moved from Switzerland to Martinez where his father worked as a chemist at Shell.  Sheila Boyer Grilli (AUHS ’55) now resides in the “storybook house” they built on Court Street across from the old Martinez Elementary School.  Dr. van den Bosch’s photo hangs on the wall at the Martinez Museum.

Classmate Mario Menesini remembers Bob as a fellow science “nut” who shared not only his college prep classes but his enthusiasm for biology and nature in general.  Playmates as children, van den Bosch belonged to the group of youngsters growing up on Court Street near the junior high.  The Court Street Gang as Menesini calls them, allowed some outsiders from other neighborhoods including Menesini from Castro Street to join them in games and adventures.

“We rode bicycles together.  We’d go down to the waterfront and throw rocks at each other.”  Ray Chapot and W. C. Little, the Bergamini kids and the children of District Attorney Rex Boyer were among the group of boys who hung out together in the 1930s.

Both boys were Boy Scouts although in different troops.  Professor van den Bosch wrote just before his death that ‘bugs were his first love and that as a member of the Boy Scouts he was one of the few who earned a merit badge in entomology.”  Menesini earned one in astronomy.   They also played football on the high school team with van den Bosch “on one side of the line and me on the other side” 

Van den Bosch’s father, Peter, introduced soccer to the high school teaching and coaching a number of boys including Menesini and Lomeli how to play the game.  In fact, young Robert was so enthusiastic about sports that when the required laboratories for entomology major at UC took too much time from athletics, he chose to major in physical education and received his bachelor’s degree in that.  His enthusiasm and perseverance in competitive sports despite his smaller stature also earned him the nickname ‘Mouse” in the 1939 Torch.

After service in World War II, van den Bosch returned to Cal and pursued his love for entomology impressing two professors so much that they encouraged him to work directly for his Ph.D. 

But Menesini says his friend never would have achieved all he did if it hadn’t been for Alhambra biology, history and chemistry teacher Albert T. Peterson.

“No other teacher generated the excitement that Al Peterson did” says Menesini who was also influenced by him to pursue his own doctoral career in education and school administration with an emphasis on the sciences.

As it turned out, few other academics generated the excitement for increasing reliance on biological controls of common agricultural and garden pests instead of highly toxic chemicals that the Alhambra student mentored by Mr. Peterson did.  As a researcher, teacher and administrator in the Division of Biological Control and the Department of Entomological Sciences in the School of Agriculture at UC Berkeley for 15 years following 12 years at UC Riverside, van den Bosch or “Van” as his colleagues knew him, led countless field research studies throughout the country and the world studying the effectiveness of using natural predators  to combat crop-destroying insects on a variety of major agricultural crops first in place of chemicals. 

When Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” in 1962 to sound the alarm about the growing disappearance of beneficial insects that not only combated agricultural pests but also fed the birds so they could live and sing, van den Bosch was already amassing the proof behind her contentions.  Vilified by the combined industrial, governmental and professional societies, Carson died of cancer not long after her book was published.  Van den Bosch worked closely with the Rachel Carson Foundation and over the years seemed to eagerly seek full membership on the same enemies list Carson headlined.

The studies he and like-minded entomologists conducted showed that far from defeating crop-destroying insects, chemical pesticides were actually increasing their ability to do significant economic damage not only to cash crops but to the farmers who grew them by greatly increasing the cost of production by needing more and more pesticides to do the job.  He included statistics on the growing number of farm bankruptcies that seemed related at least in part to higher and higher pesticide costs.

Van den Bosch and his colleagues didn’t necessarily believe that chemical control methods should never be used in commercial or residential gardens but that biological controls such as predator insects and disease resistant species of crops should be the first line of defense.

However, he wasn’t very hopeful that would happen without a fight which he intended what became his last book to provoke.  A tenured professor, he singled out by name of some of his UC system colleagues whom he felt worked too closely with the huge and powerful chemical industries, as well as the academic professional societies and the state and federal government agencies – specifically the US Department of Agriculture.  These were the culprits he felt who not only allowed but encouraged the development of ever more deadly and environmentally destructive chemicals.

Van den Bosch died within a month or two of the publication of “The Pesticide Conspiracy” so he did not live to see that one of his suggestions -- to develop some sort of educational and monitoring system for using biological controls -- was adopted by the California Legislature in 1979 as the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program.

Van den Bosch’s book helped move what was already a significant amount of research supporting his findings into public consciousness.  It also helped publicize and eventually weaken to some extent the strong ties between industry, government and academia which had thwarted efforts to establish less damaging methods as the front line of pest control. 

Although he died before his ideas became accepted, his like-minded colleagues and his students carried on his crusade and made it a practical reality.  Foremost among his students is Mary Louise Flint, Ph.D. who worked closely with him as a graduate student in entomology co-authoring one of his three books, “Source Book of Integrated Pest Management”.

Now Director of IPM Education and Publications in the UC Statewide IPM program, Flint and her co-author Steve Dreisadt dedicated their 1998 “Natural Enemies Handbook” to van den Bosch and his two closest colleagues and friends, UC professors Kenneth Hagen and Carl Huffaker.

Asked about van den Bosch, Flint told this writer that he had indeed been her major advisor when at Cal.  33 years after his sudden death, she says, “he is remembered in the academic world.  He was an incredible force.”

At the time “The Pesticide Conspiracy” was published, not many of his UC colleagues supported him.  In fact, she says “most were aghast he’d do such a political thing” as write a book that attacked so strongly so much of the agricultural establishment including by name prominent professors and administrators of the UC system.

But as more and more research was targeting DDT in particular for its toxic effects on humans in production factories and on natural life in the field, more and more adherents including young entomology students such as Flint flocked to his classes and his laboratory.

“He was a charismatic character,” she says, who didn’t mind “sticking his neck out.”

“I would not being doing what I am doing” Flint observes without having worked so closely with him in her student years.  But, she added, she is only one of his many students who carried on his research and his passion for biological control.

If he had lived, would he have become better known outside of the academic world for his contributions?  Flint is not certain but she has made sure that he and his like-minded UC colleagues are not forgotten within the IPM community. Contra Costa Master Gardeners are taught IPM principles and practices by Flint herself during their certification program. 

Van den Bosch, one hopes and thinks, would be very pleased.  And Martinez and Alhambra High School should be very proud.


This and other articles by Harriett Burt can be found at The Martinez Patch and the Martinez Historical Society Month Newsletter



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