The Consummate Teacher

The Consummate Teacher

For Robert Bacon, scientist, researcher, environmentalist and consummate teacher, being curious about the world around him came as naturally as breathing.

But whether it was examining a sea urchin embryo, assisting a student at a medical conference, or helping to save Oregon's beaches for the public, Bacon shared what he learned with others and motivated them to explore further.

"He had over 3,000 students in his lifetime, and he had a major impact on most of their lives," said his son, David Bacon.

His impact on those around him was evident when, during a hospital stay, a medical student assisting in Bacon's hospital room learned who her patient was: the man for whom the Oregon Health & Science University's Robert L. Bacon Endowment Fund was named. She was among the first to benefit from the fund, and she used her scholarship to conduct heart research. She said it inspired her to continue in the field.

Following a lengthy illness, Bacon died in his sleep on Jan. 10. He was 90.

Robert Lewis Bacon was born Feb. 5, 1918 in Olean, N.Y. to the Rev. Hiram and Grace Bacon. He had three brothers and one sister. He attended Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and earned a master's degree and doctorate in zoology at Yale University.

He married Irene Anderson in 1946; they had two children, Barbara and David. Following Irene's death in 1992, he married Sue Daniel in 1994.

He joined the University of Oregon Medical School (now Oregon Health & Science University) in 1955, where he was a professor of anatomy. He retired in 1982, He was such a popular teacher that students selected him for the Allan J. Hill, Jr., Teaching Award seven times during 20 years.

"His impact was tremendous in that a large number of the several thousand students he taught credit him as a positive influence on their lives, how they approach medicine, how they teach others and how they serve their individual patients and their communities," said Tim Coffey, associate director of development for the OHSU medical school.

Barbara Bacon Folawn believes her father's enthusiasm for teaching was influenced by his own father, a Presbyterian minister in upstate New York.

"Someone once asked Dad why he went to graduate school and on to teaching," she added. "He responded that it was because he was only a theorist and didn't 'want to have to get a real job.'" His father, said David Bacon, combined formal lectures with informal gatherings to deliver his lessons.

"He was a quintessential teacher. He was probably one of the finest natural teachers on the planet," David said. "He practiced a lot. But he made sure that he would repeat it in different ways so everybody was sure to get it."

Barbara Bacon Folawn said his students were "everything to him.

"He was completely committed to helping his students. ... Behind the podium he was very talkative, but behind the closed doors of his office at the medical school, I think he must have been a very good listener."

Although his intelligence impressed those around him, his gentleness encouraged people to approach him with questions and ideas, said Sue Daniel. Frequent gatherings at barbecues or parties in his home with students and visiting educators from around the world continued discussions that may have started in classrooms or research labs.

The conversations went on in the summer when college students studied invertebrate embryology with Bacon at the Oregon Institute of Biology in Charleston, or inspected sea urchins in his lab at Depoe Bay.

Bacon never stopped teaching.

"It was just second nature to him," Daniel said. "I laughingly told him he never stopped trying to teach me, even though I didn't always want to be taught. That was just who he was. That was his being."

As a tribute, the OHSU School of Medicine established a permanent endowment. The fund has supported student projects including sophisticated lab research, studies related to bicycle helmet safety and perfecting communication skills to better convey complex medical information to patients and their families. Bacon also became known as an environmental leader. He trained whale-watch volunteers and taught Elderhostel participants about local estuaries and rocky intertidal ecology. He helped to organize the Haystack Rock Awareness Program and led the effort to save the beaches for public use with the Oregon Beach Bill.

As a child, Bacon explored the woods near his home in upstate New York with a microscope his dad and mother had given him.

While attending college, Bacon received a scholarship to do summer research on sea urchins at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. Sea urchin embryos can be used for embryo development studies because the early development is exactly like human development. Bacon wrote his doctoral dissertation on the development of an embryonic heart. The intertidal zone became important to Bacon, and he strove to help others understand how delicate the intertidal is. "It was being stepped on so heavily by a lot of people and by pollution, so Dad had to save it," said David Bacon. "That's a very important tidal zone to us. It keeps us alive. The plankton - that's a huge factory for humans. Some people don't get that, but he did and he tried to make sure it was going to be OK. "That's why he started the Haystack Rock Awareness Program," David said. "It was an opportunity to educate people from all over the world."

Bacon also helped to lead the effort to save the Oregon beaches for public access in 1967. Despite threats on his life, Bacon persevered, working behind the scenes to get legislative approval on the controversial bill that would extend and define public ownership of the beaches.

David remembered his father talking on the phone to "people in Salem" during dinner. "And we'd be out there with the petitions and holding "Save Our Beaches" signs. There were evening meetings all the time. We were deeply involved in it in every shape and form," David said.

"Dad was a very significant player. He seemed to be the one that the legislative people wanted to deal with. He was a good politician without wanting to be one. He was able to get a lot of things done. It was a team effort, but I think he was the point man." As a hobby, Bacon collected wine, and later in his life he and Sue often visited wineries in Washington, Oregon and California.

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