A Martinez Environmental Legend You May Not Know: Robert van den Bosch

If life were fair, Martinez native Robert van den Bosch, would be as well known an environmental hero as his fellow native son, Joe Di Maggio, is as a sports hero.

The other day 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 museum'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 know."  Robert van den Bosch was a professor of entomology at UC Berkeley who was disciple of Rachel Carson.  He became a developer of and advocate for using natural predators to combat the insects that destroy agricultural crops.  He was extremely critical of the heavy use of pesticides in agriculture and a leader in the successful fight to ban the use of DDT.  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. 

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

"Well, fine" you say "but you haven't answered Marlene's question." 

Actually, it's simple.  Robert van den Bosch was born and raised in Martinez, graduating from Alhambra 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 with-it high school students of the time (see Our Gang movies).  His parents moved from Switzerland to Martinez where his father worked as a chemist at Shell.  Sheila Boyer Grilli now resides in the "storybook house" they built on Court Street across from the old Martinez Elementary School.

There's more to the van den Bosch story which I will be working on for the Historical Society and Contra Costa Master Gardener newsletters.

"But wait!" you say.  "How did you know about this guy?"  Simple.  When I was community editor of the News-Gazette in the 1980s, UC sent out a release each year about the memorial lecture in his memory.  I was expected to write up a little story about it as 30 years ago there were still many people living here who remembered Bob (or Van as he was known at Cal or Mouse which was his nickname here according to the '39 Torch) and would have been proud of his success. 

That pride should be passed on to the current generations of Martinez residents.

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Scott Williams November 16, 2011 at 09:54 PM
Great article. I'd never heart of him and his part in that fight, or the connection to Martinez. We still have eagles, hawks and peregrine falcons flying our skies because of his success. Thanks Harriet,
Chris Kapsalis November 17, 2011 at 12:35 AM
A man before his time. It is so important to use nature to control nature, and not rely on pesticides so much. Thank you Harriet for this great article, look forward to learning more about him. I am now reading up on his work and so much of what he said was not accepted and learned until years after. With the Certified organic movement going on today, and what we now know, we can learn so much from his work. Not to mention what these pesticides do when they run off into the water and also from over sprays to wild life.
Kristin Henderson November 27, 2011 at 05:07 PM
Dear Harriet, thank you for caring what goes on at the Historical Society.


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