- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
The emeritus professor, who retired in 1987, was the last surviving member of the original entomology faculty.
Dr. Bacon chaired the department (now the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology) from 1967 to 1974. In 1964, Mrak appointed him to spearhead the UC Davis conversion of the two-semester system to four quarters.
Dr. Bacon was chair of the entomology department when it moved to the newly constructed Briggs Hall in 1972. An appreciative faculty presented him with 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.”
As a 41-year UC agricultural entomologist, Dr. Bacon 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.”
Colleague Norm Gary, emeritus professor of entomology, said: "The last time I visited with Oscar was this past year when he attended a music performance by my band at the senior home where he lived the last years of his life. He was amazingly sharp and active at 96!"
“When I first arrived in Davis in 1962 Oscar gave me an orientation tour to see California agricultural activities and visit his field research projects just north of Woodland," Gary said. "Years later, after he became department chair, I was impressed and appreciative that he actually took time to visit my active field research activities with bees near Dixon. Oscar was very supportive in many ways to our Entomology faculty and highly regarded as a professional. He was always cheerful, thoughtful, considerate, and fun to be with, whether at morning coffee breaks, faculty meetings or at Christmas parties. He was an amazing man in all respects. He enriched all of our lives, professionally and socially.”
Emeritus professor Robert Washino, former chair of the department and former associate dean, UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, recalled: “I was appointed to the faculty in Entomology during the Bohart to Bacon transition period as department chair and so my interaction with Oscar dealt mostly as a newly appointed junior faculty. However, during all the years since then as a colleague and friend, I've never, ever heard Oscar make an unkind remark about anyone in teaching/advising, research and administration.”
Professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, praised his work as an entomologist, an administrator and a gentleman. “I knew Oscar Bacon when I was an undergraduate, grad student and faculty member. He was a true gentleman, never an unkind word, and always looking out for the best for the department.”
Said distinguished emeritus professor Robbin Thorp, who collaborated 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. 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," Thorp said. "Oscar co-authored the first Cooperative Extension publication on the alfalfa leafcutting bees with several of us.”
Dr. Bacon, who humbly said of himself: “I'm the jack of all trades and master of none,” pursued many diverse interests. He was not only agriculturist, entomologist, researcher, professor, administrator, but a mechanic, furniture builder, boating enthusiast and ag history docent. He restored antique cars and boats, from rustic Model T's to a 1964 mahogany Chris-Craft cabin cruiser. As a wood carver and artist, he crafted furniture and carved birds.
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 was the last surviving member of the original faculty.
Born Nov. 8, 1919, Oscar grew up in Sanger, Fresno County on a 60-acre family farm. He was an only child. Oscar 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 in a feature story published in 2009 on the UC Davis Entomology website. “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; he recalled that 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.
Oscar went on to earn two degrees from UC Berkeley: 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 Oscar worked more closely with another accomplished entomologist, Abraham Michelbacher (1899-1991). “Abe was like a second father to me,” he recalled.
Dr. Bacon 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.
His 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,” he related. “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 Oscar 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.
Oscar 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, distinguished professor of entomology and former vice chair of the department and a past president of the Entomological Society of America, said he has long admired Bacon as an advocate for agricultural entomology research.
Said Zalom: “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 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.”
Dr. Bacon is survived by his wife, Barbara, of Davis, and a daughter, Bonnie Krisiak, son-in-law Steve Krisiak and granddaughter Stephanie Krisiak, all of the Sacramento area. He and his first wife, the late Dorothy Flagg Bacon, raised three daughters, Beverly and Gayle (now both deceased), and Bonnie.
Some of the 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.” He 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: As a devoted teacher, Dr. Bacon developed “The Natural History of Insects” into one of the most popular undergraduate classes on the UC Davis campus. He 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.
Artist: In 1990, Bacon enrolled in a woodworking class in Sacramento, and carved birds from basswood, sugar pine and tupelo blocks, and textured and painted them. “There's a bird in every block,” he recalled. “It's tedious and time consuming but very rewarding. I've never been interested in making them for sale.” His favorites include an American kesterel sparrow hawk that he carved in 1997. His other favorites include a white-breasted nut hatch, white crown sparrow, California quail, stellar jay and a redwing blackbird. He's also completed other works, including a replica of a team of Clydesdale horses pulling a Anheuser-Busch wagon. “No, the company has never seen it,” he said.
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. Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus, still marvels at how Bacon could tuck his 6-foot, 4-inch frame inside his Triumph TR3, a tiny British sports car he restored.
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 (deceased) and Eric Mussen; research associate Wayne Johnson (deceased); and administrative assistant Shirley Humphrey.
(Editor's Note: At his request, the family will not be holding a memorial service."