Editor’s Note: The PMP staff is saddened to report that John passed away Oct. 13, 2012. He was 94. Learn more here.
Dr. John Osmun is an incredible man. He has played an unparalleled role in almost every facet of the pest control industry including researcher, educator and regulator, yet he is ever so humble as he recounts his own career history, and remembers all who helped and inspired him along the way. Osmun is one of three winners of Pest Control’s inaugural Hall of Fame—and he certainly deserves it.
“I’m overwhelmed. I’ve been out of this (pest control) for a number of years, and to have it suddenly bubble up again is very gratifying,” states Osmun.
Of course, Osmun has one of those early “bug stories” to explain his undying love for entomology.
“I was lying in my baby carriage in Amherst, Mass., and my older brother came by with a caterpillar on his finger. He showed it to me, and my mother says I sat and patted it,” he recounts. “From that day on, I’ve been interested in insects.”
Continuing his childhood fascination with insects, Osmun spent 10 or 12 summers at Camp Sumner in Massachusetts, where he worked as a teenager, and later ended up as the assistant director.
“We stressed insects as a nature study in camp. The kids loved it! That’s when I learned that people like insects,” he exclaims.
In high school, his signature logo was a spider, which he proceeded to draw on everything. Of course, we’re all aware that spiders are not exactly insects, but one gets the idea.
Anyway, on to college. For Osmun, there wasn’t any question about what his major would be.
“Most of my friends entered college with no idea what they wanted to be, but I didn’t have that problem. I knew that I was going into entomology,” he asserts.
So, he geared all his courses at Massachusetts State College (now the University of Massachusetts) appropriately. Next, he attended Amherst College and obtained a Master’s degree in biology, and then went into the Army for four years.
Unbelievably, and luckily for Osmun, all of his work in the military revolved around entomology. A friend named Fred Wohittemore helped him get into Camp Gordon, Ga., (now Fort Gordon), where he worked as a commissioned entomologist in the medical service corp.
He spent a lot of time collecting and identifying mosquitoes and fleas because there was a great fear of malaria at the time. He worked to develop a preventative control program against the disease.
Interestingly, the same friend who helped him get into Camp Gordon also helped his wife.
In 1942, Osmun’s wife, Dottie, was hired to do layouts of the areas where they needed mosquito control. So, as the story goes, she worked for two weeks and then was given two weeks vacation with pay, which is, subsequently, when the Osmuns got married.
“This guy was kind of a wheeler-dealer, and I wanted to get married. So, my wife (then girlfriend) came down there. Two weeks before we got married he hired her as a draftsman. She was an economics major, but she’s a wonderful artist,” he recalls.
A Running Start
The year after Osmun was married, he moved to Governor’s Island, N.Y., and became chief entomologist for the First Army, which included New York, New Jersey, Delaware and the New England states.
“This is really where I got into pest control because I was actually working with the pest control people,” he points out.
In 1943, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent him some Geserol, which he didn’t know at the time, was DDT.
“I was the first one to use DDT against bedbugs, which were rampant in the barracks. They’d be crawling on the walls by the thousands,” he stresses. “You could kill a few with pyrethrins, but the next day, there’d be more back.
“We applied DDT in the rooms in the barracks, and in 24 hours we got rid of the bed bugs. That’s one of the reasons why DDT was so popular, because it was so effective against pests of man.”
According to Osmun, at this time, pest control operators (PCOs) were called exterminators. He points out that the term “pest control operator” was coined in the late 1930s by Purdue Professor Howard Deay, but it didn’t actually grab hold for a long time.
“The general impression that people had of exterminators was ‘buggy people’ who weren’t awfully ethical, and went around getting rid of cockroaches,” he explains.
“However, there was a core of outstanding people (maybe 10 or 12) who made all the difference,” he says.
For example, he adds Bill Buettner was one of them. Buettner operated a pest control company in Brooklyn, N.Y., and he was a mover and a shaker.
Under Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration and the New Deal, the National Recovery Act (NRA) was established, which required all service and manufacturing industries to identify themselves as organizations. So, Buettner organized the National Association of Exterminators and Fumigators (the National Pest Control Association’s [NPCA’s] original name).
“In the early ’30s, when it was necessary to ‘declare’ the industry, under the National Recovery Act, Bill Buettner was the leader of the movement. He is the man who stood up and got this thing done,” Osmun recounts.
Buettner was also the first president of the NPCA and long-time executive secretary. Osmun says that one of the best things about his Army experience was getting to know Buettner and working closely with members of the pest control industry.
“I remember around 1943, the first time I went to visit him in his office, Bill was standing up with a telephone in each hand. He talked with somebody in Chicago on one hand, and then he’d put it aside and talk to somebody in Washington from the other. In the meantime, he’d dictate a letter,” Osmun remembers. “I’m not kidding, he did all those things at one time because that’s how Bill operated.”
A Time for Change
In 1946, Osmun decided to leave the Army and his work as a commissioned entomologist and go to work for Merck Chemical Co., which today continues to make pharmaceutical products.
At that time, Merck had an entomology program under the direction of Dr. Ralph Heal. Osmun worked with Heal in a lab, testing insects to develop chemicals for Merck. After about a year-and-a-half of doing this, he received a call from Buettner.
“Bill said, ‘We think you ought to go to Purdue.’ I knew where Purdue was and I’d heard of J.J. Davis (Head of the Purdue Entomology Department), but that’s about all,” Osmun says. “After I met J.J. Davis, however, it was just a matter of time until I was at Purdue.”
The university was looking for someone to develop a new curriculum in structural pest control. They wanted a young person who would be willing to pursue such a project, because, according to Osmun, “it was a gargantuan task.”
In March of 1948, he was hired as an assistant professor of entomology. He was assigned the job of developing six new courses.
“By fall, I had it done,” he asserts.
The curriculum included two basic courses on urban and industrial insects; two applied practical courses (in which actual pest control work was done in conjunction with an area PCO); one course about insecticides and their formulations, (which is still taught at Purdue today); and a final course covering vertebrate pest control, (which, according to Osmun, was the first class dealing with vertebrate pests anywhere).
“My philosophy has always been that you ‘study the science to practice the art’—so that’s what we did,” he maintains.
So, how did Purdue become the wherewithal of entomology as opposed to other universities? Osmun credits Davis.
“J.J. Davis was a pioneer, and an inquisitive type of guy. He decided to go to Detroit for the first meeting of Exterminators and Fumigators (NPCA). He walked in and met Bill Buettner and from that moment on, they became a team. They were both pioneers, stressing different things, but working together,” he explains.
Some fortunate students who participated in the first class using the new curriculum included Bill Brehm, George Gilmore, Bud Wright, Harlan Shuyler and Frank Harder.
Brehm and Gilmore were, of course, the inventors of the B&G compressed air sprayer, which revolutionized the industry. Wright developed the B&G Chemical and Equipment Co. in Texas, which is still in existence and operated today by Wright’s son.
In Osmun’s opinion, however, the most important thing that the first class of structural pest control did was to form Pi Chi Omega, a professional pest control fraternity. The first meeting took place in 1950 in Osmun’s living room. Dottie baked a pie because they were “Pi” Chi Omega.
“Its primary purpose is to encourage education and high standards in the pest control industry. Today, there are more than 400 members,” he boasts.
Yet Another Chapter
Even with the success of the first entomology class under his belt, Osmun still wanted to obtain his Ph.D. He says some people didn’t even think he should have even been an assistant professor without it. So, he told Dottie that if he didn’t get a raise, he was going to leave Purdue.
Guess what, no raise. So, he left Purdue to obtain his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Ill. He was, however, able to keep his Purdue appointment and simply take a leave of absence from his job at the university.
Then, as the story goes, one night at supper time while Osmun was at Illinois, his phone rang. It was a fellow staffer from Purdue calling who said, “How ya doin’ this evening boss?”
At this point, Osmun had no idea what he was talking about. As it turns out, the “powers that be” at Purdue decided that as soon as Osmun finished his Ph.D. work, he would be appointed the new department head.
Sure enough, J.J. Davis retired in 1956. Then on the last day of June Osmun finished school, and on the first day of July, he became the Head of the Entomology Department at Purdue.
“That was kinda neat,” he reflects. “It was a great career as department head. I was very fortunate and I had tremendous support from the administration and an outstanding staff.
“I had an open-door policy. I wanted a staff who would come in and pound on my desk and say, ‘We ought to do things differently.’ The only reason that we were successful is because we had a great staff.”
He served in the post from 1956 until stepping down from the post in 1972.
“FIFRA was, and still is, a very good law,” he indicates. “The industry was up in arms about it at first. Their first reaction was, ‘Oh my God, government regulations, government control!’ and they had a hard time seeing the forest from the trees.”
“Fortunately, Richard Eldridge, the executive secretary of the NPCA, could see the value. Finally, the industry realized that to be certified was to their advantage,” he maintains.
Looking back over his 60 years in the industry, Osmun says in many ways it hasn’t changed, but on the other hand it has changed markedly.
The way that it has stayed the same is that its purpose is the management of pests of man. The way it’s different is that the public perception of the industry is favorable.
“The difficulty that we have is that the public is apprehensive about chemicals in our environment, which includes pesticides,” he admonishes. “The industry has had to rise above that and keep its professional posture in such a manner so that it can succeed.
“Today, we have hundreds of businesses that are in place for the service of other people, and that hasn’t always been so. I think that the industry has benefited from this change because we are a technical business for the service of mankind, and we’re doing pretty darn well at being accepted by the public,” he notes.
Also, because educational training has prevailed, he believes that there are more highly competent people in the industry and in leadership roles.
Osmun also sees a change in the eyes of the scientific community.
“In the ’30s, when J.J. Davis dared to take the step out, he was a maverick. Today, the scientific community embraces the industry and works cooperatively with it on scientific endeavors,” reiterates Osmun.
In 1975, after his tour of duty in the agency, Osmun went back to Purdue as a professor, while still consulting for the EPA. He finally retired in 1987, but still, 10 years later, maintains an office at Purdue. Somehow, that’s not at all surprising.