It all started with a phone call back in ’76. The medical director of Hooker Chemical Company rang Robert Spear because one of its subsidiaries in California had an occupational health problem.
“We need somebody who knows about pesticides and agricultural chemicals to go have a look to see if there are any hazardous situations that might explain some of the rumors we’ve been hearing,” the director said. “I’ll do it,” Spear replied, “but I want to take a chemist with me, my colleague Steve Rappaport.”
The aftermath of that call is California history. The two young professors from UC Berkeley School of Public Health helped to discover the rumors were true —six out of seven men at the plant who were tested for fertility were sterile, and all of them worked with the pesticide dibromochloropropane, or DBCP.
“You can imagine what happened next,” said Spear.
Following the revelation of the DBCP tragedy, the State passed Assembly Bill 3414 in September 1978. The legislation mandated the University of California to establish occupational health teaching, research, and service centers in Northern and Southern California under the leadership of Don Vial from the California Department of Industrial Relations. Spear was appointed as the Center’s founding director in Northern California. It fell to Spear to put together a plan linking a nexus of occupational health programs at UC Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis. Later, DBCP was banned from use in 1979 by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
As occupation hazards changed over the years, Spear and his colleagues led COEH to keep pace. “In 1977 we were right in the teeth of an environmental awakening in this country following the earlier enactment of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency — all at the federal level.” Though occupational health research and practice solidified at the Center, Spear says the environmental side saw tremendous growth and became the largest source of funding.
Looking forward, Spear sees a great challenge because of the lack of political interest in occupational health and public confusion over the state of the environment. “That’s why a new set of tools to deal with the complexity of occupational and environmental exposures is so important,” he believes. As an example of these emerging tools, he points to the work of COEH faculty Martyn Smith and Steven Rappaport. At their Genes and Environment Laboratory, they are developing a new generation of biomarkers and biosensors for environmental epidemiology.
Spear’s major research interest has been in the application of exposure assessment methods to unusual problems. For example, some years ago Spear turned his attention to global health issues, specifically control and intervention strategies to reduce the prevalence of schistosomiasis, a major parasitic disease in China as well as in Africa and parts of South America. Much of his group’s work has been in Xichang County in southwestern Sichuan where he was made an Honorary Citizen of the county by the local government.
Spear has received many honors for his contributions to the field, but he says that his greatest satisfaction has been the achievements of his students. “I always felt that what you really wanted were students that were a little smarter than you were and to help them move on,” says Spear.
It comes as no surprise, then, that UC Berkeley honored Spear with the Zak Sabry Mentorship Award at the School of Public Health's commencement ceremony in May 2010. Spear also considers the Friendship Award from the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, the Jinding Award from the provincial government of Sichuan, China, the Berkeley Citation, and the Berkeley Faculty Service Award among his highest honors.
Spear, a professor emeritus in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health, is a Licensed Professional Engineer and an internationally recognized mathematical modeling expert in toxicological and infectious disease processes. He began his academic career at UC Berkeley, first receiving his BS degree in Engineering Science in 1962, then an MS in Mechanical Engineering in 1963. Spear obtained his PhD in Control Engineering in 1968 from Cambridge University in England.
In 1969, UC Berkeley convinced Spear to return as a post-doctoral fellow. Soon, they recruited him as an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences. He became an associate professor in 1975 and a full professor in 1981. Spear served as associate dean of the School of Public Health from 1988-91 and of the College of Engineering from 1994-96. He also served as the acting dean of the School of Public Health in 2007.
COEH Then and Now
Donald Whorton was an internationally-recognized occupational health physician and workplace epidemiologist, with long ties to COEH. He was the founding director of the COEH’s Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) at UC Berkeley. Whorton’s ground-breaking work establishing the link between male sterility and exposure to the pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP) led the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the substance. Dr. Whorton was board certified in occupational and internal medicine, an elected member of the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine, and a Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology and the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Donald continued his important work in occupational and environmental health until his untimely death from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 2008.
Find this article and others online at http://coeh.berkeley.edu/bridges