Living in the Past and Loving It

By Harriett Burt

(This article was orignally published online in the Martinez, CA Patch, November 15, 2011,

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 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 and advocate for using natural predator insects to combat the insects that destroy agricultural crops. 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 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 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 fashionable 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.


Robert van den Bosch


There’s more to the van den Bosch story which I will be working on for the Historical Society newsletter as well as the Contra Costa Master Gardener newsletter.

"But wait" you say. "How did you know about this guy?" Simple. When I was community editor at the News-Gazette in the 1980s, UC sent a release out each year about the Robert van den Bosch Memorial Lecture held annually for some years at Cal. 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 1939 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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