New oral history: Vincent H. Resh
Vincent H. Resh is a world-renowned Professor of Aquatic Ecology and Entomology and an award-winning teacher at UC Berkeley whose decades of humanitarian work, research, and leadership in the Onchocerciasis Control Programme helped protect tens of millions of people from the scourge of river blindness in sub-Saharan West Africa. Resh and I recorded over twenty-eight hours of his oral history over Zoom in the first months of 2021. His fascinating, world traveling, and enlightening oral history produced a transcript over 700 pages long, including a bibliography of his publications with over 400 entries, as well as an appendix of photographs with family, friends, and colleagues.
To me, Vince Resh embodies ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity” or “the quality of being human” that functions more extensively as “humanity towards others.” Ubuntu encapsulates ideas of community and interconnection with human kindness and mutual caring. It offers an African way of seeing self-identity formed in mutual relation to one another that sometimes is explained as “I am because we are.” The ubuntu theology of Archbishop Desmond Tutu popularized the concept, especially in the 1990s when he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission during their turbulent transition to democratic majority rule. Desmond Tutu described ubuntu as something that “refers to gentleness, to compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to be available to others and to know that you are bound up with them in the bundle of life.” Coincidentally, Vince Resh began his own life-changing and life-giving work in West Africa around that same time.
I associate Vince Resh with ubuntu for several reasons. Certainly for his decades of self-sacrificing humanitarian and ecological work in West Africa and elsewhere, but perhaps foremost for his genuine love of people. Resh has an infectious joie de vivre that shines brightest while sharing his world-spanning adventures with beloved family, friends, and fellow travelers. His explorations as an entomologist and freshwater scientist took him across the planet to examine nature’s deep and delicate interconnections. On those adventures, Resh created community everywhere he went, forging new friendships or fortifying old ones. His teaching and research provided a means to deepen bonds with people he loved most, friends and science collaborators alike, and often in the service of others. As Resh explored ways that water enables ecological interconnections, he deepened his own human relations, grew into his best self, and lifted up others in the process.
Vincent Resh was born September 1945, in Greenwich Village, New York City, and grew up in Westchester County, just north of the Bronx. He earned a B.S. from Georgetown University in 1967, a M.S. from Niagara University in 1969, and his Ph.D. in 1973 in the Water Resources Laboratory at the University of Louisville. His research examined the evolutionary ecology of aquatic insects, and he developed approaches for the biological monitoring of water quality and the control of water-borne disease vectors. Resh was an assistant professor at Ball State University from 1973 to 1975. He joined the faculty at UC Berkeley in 1975, mentored scores of graduate students, and taught over 20,000 Berkeley undergraduates from 1988 to 2011 in his General Biology course. From 1996 to 2001, Resh was Director of the Richard B. Gump South Pacific Biological Research Station on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. From 1995 to 2009, he served on the Expert Advisory Committee and chaired the Ecological Group in the World Bank and World Health Organization’s Onchocerciasis (River Blindness) Control Programme in West Africa. From 2002 to 2012, he advised the Mekong River Commission on the effects of large Chinese dams by conducting studies throughout Southeast Asia. He was involved in many international aid projects, taught courses at universities throughout the world, lectured across all seven continents, and consulted on numerous science advisory boards and projects. Upon retiring in 2015, Resh received the Berkeley Citation, a high honor for those whose contributions to UC Berkeley go beyond the call of duty and whose achievements exceed the standards of excellence in their fields. His son Jon and stepson Jeff were born in 1970. He is married to Cheryl Resh, a former Vice Chancellor and Director of the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office at UC Berkeley who also earned the Berkeley Citation upon her retirement.
Vincent Resh’s oral history recounts his rich personal life and his prolific academic and humanitarian career. The details of Resh’s education and academic career—especially his decades of ecological monitoring and teaching for international aid projects all around the world—highlights various ways that entomological science can be used to improve the human condition, while also creating historic records of human impacts on the natural world. Resh’s oral history also reveals how social connections play a fundamental role in the scientific process of creating new knowledge. Resh regularly developed deep friendships with his many academic collaborators around the planet. He shares numerous stories from his personal relationships with his academic mentors, as well as his own legions of graduate and undergraduate students during his forty years of teaching at UC Berkeley. Resh also taught courses all over the world on the process of scientific writing and publication, much of it drawn from his experiences as a prolific author and an academic editor. From 1976 to 1998, Resh was editor of the leading academic journal Annual Review of Entomology, and he co-edited the award-winning Encyclopedia of Insects in 2003, which was awarded the “Most Outstanding Single-Volume Reference in Science” by the Association of American Publishers and “Best of Reference” by the New York Public Library and Library Journal.
Resh’s oral history also provides details from his biomonitoring research and international service projects throughout Europe, India, Russia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Central America, and North America. Resh discussed extensively his two decades of biological monitoring and decision-making as chair of the Ecological Control Group and member of the Expert Advisory Committee for the OCP, the World Health Organization’s Onchocerciasis (River Blindness) Control Programme in West Africa. The WHO and World Bank’s summary statistics of success for the OCP are astounding. Along with other program leaders, Resh’s decades of work helped protect 40 million of the poorest people on Earth from river blindness, including nearly 25 million children born in the area since the program’s start who are now free from risk of river blindness. Their work prevented an estimated 600,000 new cases of blindness across the eleven participating nations in West Africa, and some 1.5 million people who were once infected no longer experience symptoms. As a result, the OCP opened up 25 million hectares of arable land, which is enough to feed an additional 17 million people per year. Perhaps even more astounding, in order to achieve these successes, the Ecological Control Group that Resh oversaw sprayed carefully controlled pesticides on 30,000 miles of rivers over a geographic area covering over 476,000 square miles across eleven different nations in West Africa. This massive spraying was conducted nearly every week for 10-12 months each year for about 20 years, including while some of the West Africa nations were at war with each other! Resh’s participation in the OCP, or River Blindness Programme, had a profound effect on his life, his teaching, and his health—all of which he described throughout his detailed and moving oral history.
For me, Vince Resh embodies ubuntu because his life journey and the choices he made throughout his career as a teacher and as a freshwater scientist continually fostered an ethic of mutual caring and community enrichment. Theologian Michael Battle, who was ordained by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, once described a person with ubuntu as open and available to others, affirming of others, not threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, and is elevated when others are lifted up. I had the pleasure of learning about Vince Resh’s many years of incredible service to his many communities—of scholars and learners at Berkeley, of international scientists, of fellow international aid workers in humanitarian projects around the world, and of his friends and neighbors in California’s Bay Area. And now, with the publication of his extensive oral history, you too have the opportunity to learn from and revel in Vincent H. Resh’s adventures of living and sharing ubuntu.
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