Department of Animal Science, UC Davis
Winter/Spring 2002

Professor Emeritus Robert C. Laben Continues to Serve

Professor Emeritus Robert C. Laben has always been one of the department's most enthusiastic promoters and supporters. During the Students First Campaign in the mid-1990s, he and his wife  established the Robert and Dorothy Laben Undergraduate Scholarship. More recently, they founded the department's Educational Enhancement Fund for undergraduates to support out-of-class educational opportunities. Dr. Laben was born and raised on a dairy farm in Genesee County, New York. His university life began at Cornell in 1938. A month after he graduated, in June 1942, with a B.S. in Animal Husbandry, he was ordered to active military duty as a reserve officer in the US Field Artillery. His unit, the 79th Infantry Division, was part of the D Day invasion force assigned to take the port of Cherbourg, France. Near there, he was wounded in action as a forward observer with the infantry. After a brief hospitalization in England, he returned to command his battery. On October 2, 1944,while going forward to direct fire, his jeep hit a mine. He was evacuated to an army hospital in New York State where after a series of operations he was retired from active duty in June 1946. Between operations he taught in the Cornell ROTC Department. It was there that he met his future wife, Dorothy, a nutrition graduate student. In September 1946, Bob entered the Oklahoma A&M graduate program, and he and Dorothy were married in November. While working on his M.S. in animal breeding, Dorothy taught chemistry at the college. After receiving his degree, he and Dorothy moved to the University of Missouri where Bob earned a Ph.D. conducting a genetic analysis of Holstein dairy cattle records. 

Soon after receiving his Ph.D. in 1950, an instructor position opened in the Department of Animal Husbandry at UC Davis. Bob got the job and taught his first course in the fall of that year. Thus began his illustrious career at UC Davis spanning some 36 years, until he retired in 1986. Needless to say, Bob loved teaching and his students. For many years, he taught courses in dairy cattle production, lactation and animal breeding. When not in the classroom, he could often be found advising students and helping them with special projects. He was master advisor for the Animal Science undergraduate major for 15 years, and in 1973 he received the College's Undergraduate Student Advisor Award.

Professor Laben was also active in graduate education and served as major professor and committee member for many graduate students. Many of them came from places like Pakistan, Sudan, Congo, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile and Peru. Most of them became involved in research on the genetics of dairy cattle and goats. His Ph.D. students included Clive Arave (1964), A.A. Alrawi (1978) and Omar Betancourt (1981).

Dr. Laben's own research focused on cattle breeding. His first major research investigation at UC Davis was on the California Dairy Cattle Research Project, investigating the effects of inbreeding on economically important traits in Jersey cows. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bob became involved in the Western Regional Dairy Cattle Breeding Project on milk composition, a study designed to increase milk solids, especially protein. At the time it was difficult to accurately determine quantities of milk protein, and wool dyes that bind to protein were being used to measure protein levels in milk with a colorimeter. Professor Laben and his colleagues worked to develop and refine colorometric techniques for milk constituent analysis, including the development of a flow-through cuvette.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, Professor Laben worked as a team member in DDT research examining the impact of environmental DDT on the dairy industry and the food supply. The ultimate goal of the project was to reduce and limit the presence of DDT in milk. Bob's role was to study levels of DDT in cattle feed and the rate at which DDT decayed. The Mastitis Research Project followed, in cooperation with the School of Veterinary Medicine. Bob was in charge of milk sampling and the analysis of the data collected. During a sabbatical leave in 1976-77 at Iowa State University, Bob worked with Dr. Gene Freeman in analyzing some 270,000 California DHIA lactation records for constants useful in selection practices and the relationship between traits such as milk production and reproductive efficiency.

In addition to his teaching and research responsibilities, Professor Laben served as Director of the campus computer center between 1965 and 1969. He is quick to point out that modern-day computers are a bit smaller than the monstrous machine he supervised back then in the basement of Hutchison Hall.

Bob and Dorothy will celebrate their 56th wedding anniversary this year. They raised four children in Davis, all of whom graduated from UC Davis. John lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, Robert in Chandler, Arizona, Elizabeth in Bakersfield, California and Catherine in Bend, Oregon. There are six grandchildren.

Since retiring, Professor Emeritus Laben spent six months working with the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C. He has also helped Dorothy distribute food to organizations assisting needy families in Yolo County. For over 40 years, Bob has served as a volunteer hunter education instructor for the California Department of Fish and Game; in 1991 he was named Yolo Sportsman's Association Sportsman of the Year and, in 1995, Instructor of the Year. Most years, he has found time for a fall trek to Wyoming for deer or antelope. In 1986, he and Dorothy participated in a People to People mission to China, and in 2001 they visited Japan, specifically the area where Dorothy had been a second-grade student in the American School in 1920.

Bob and Dorothy still take great pleasure in attending department functions, especially those involving students.

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