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Joseph Bonaventura

February 15, 1942 ~ August 14, 2021 (age 79)

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Joseph “Joe” Bonaventura, 79, of Beaufort, NC, after six years of successful treatment for liver cancer passed away peacefully, painlessly, and with grace on August 14, 2021, surrounded by his loving family at his daughter’s home in Asheboro, NC.

A memorial service will be held at a later date at the Duke University Marine Lab on Pivers Island, Beaufort, NC.

In addition to his parents, he is predeceased by his infant great-grandson, Benjamin Orrin Bixler; brothers, Filiberto and Romulus Bonaventura.

He is survived by his daughters, Dr. Marina Bonaventura of Asheboro, North Carolina and Michelle Frayer (Jeffery) of Sarasota, Florida; grandchildren: Joseph Frayer and Rebecca Frayer (Chris Bixler) of Sarasota, Florida and Ira Ansel Wren (Aaron “Tre” Laverne Queen, III) of Asheboro, North Carolina; great-granddaughter, Teagan Frayer of Sarasota, Florida. In addition, he is survived by his sisters: Mary Elizabeth Batchelder (Robert) of Nevada City, California and Angela Bonaventura (Robert Miller) of Oakland, California; former wife Celia Bonaventura of Beaufort, North Carolina and brother-in-law, James Taylor (Darlene) of San Diego, California.

It is impossible to summarize the fabulous life and character of Joe Bonaventura in a few words or to define his life in a short list of achievements and interests.  There is no all-encompassing descriptor; ­­he had a broad spectrum of good qualities, some of which will be remembered and celebrated here.  All who met him have their own stories and many lives have been changed by his influence.

Joe was born on February 15, 1942 in Oakland California, to the late Filiberto Antonio and Corinne Vanlora Fogarty Bonaventura.  Joe received a B.S degree from the University of California, San Diego; he received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Texas, Austin; he received a postdoctoral fellowship from Caltech; and a second postdoctoral fellowship from Università degli Studi di Roma “La Sapienza” in Italy.  In 1972 Joe joined the research and teaching faculty at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. Joe later became a full professor at Duke University, Departments of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, School of Medicine and School of Environmental Studies.  He was an Emeritus Professor of the Nicholas School and Duke Marine Lab.  At the Duke University Marine Lab he co-founded the Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Center.  He was recruited by the NIH to support a Biomedical Center at the University of Puerto Rico and was a Professor-at-Large at that institution.  He founded the companies Bonaventis and CDI Laboratories in Puerto Rico. In doing so, he catalyzed the creation of the biotech research and development industry in this United States island territory that became a second home to him.

Joe was an eager and engaged friend to many and he was easy to love.  He celebrated the successes of his friends and many students.  Interaction with him shaped many lives and careers.  He valued art as well as science. He made connections between both ideas and friends, bringing people and concepts together in sometimes startling fashion.  He was quick to see potential in people – sometimes before they believed in themselves.  He was an avid reader, celebrated learning, and encouraged others to grow and explore in their careers without neglecting to take care and joy in family life and travel.  His legacy will be felt and perpetuated by those of his students who have become teachers themselves, echoing his love for teaching and his love for his students through the coming years. He never stopped creating, learning or working.   

His inventions and patents were diverse. Joe had a passion and gift for innovative research.  While at Duke he discovered ways to immobilize hemoglobin and other molecules so they didn’t lose their bioactivity. This led to his invention of “hemosponge” (the first prototype using his own blood) and “the artificial gill”. He started two companies based on this novel technology (Biosponge, Inc. and Biotech Toys and Models, Inc) and interacted for several years with Aquanautics, Inc, a company that licensed his technology for extraction of oxygen. Aquanautics aimed at oxygen extraction from sea water for divers, cities and ships underwater, but risked all of their resources on a trial run on extraction from beer. The “Smart Caps” worked wonderfully, but something in the inert material used in the Caps gave the beer a funky flavor. The company collapsed. Other adventures at the forefront of technology followed, one notable one being a demonstration that engineered forms of hemoglobin could be grown in yeast, opening the door for blood substitutes for injection and for treatment of septic shock. What Joe showed to be possible may yet be made practical.

Joe was always intrigued by the ways biochemical processes could be put to use for human and environmental health.  Other researchers at Duke followed his lead during the many years he co-directed the Duke University’s Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Center.  He used the Center’s resources to help foster many technologies based on the unique properties of marine and freshwater organisms.  His scientific legacy lives on in the great impact of the Feasibility Funds of the Center he directed, which helped hundreds of projects come to fruition.

Joe and his former wife Celia developed a fish feeding stimulant, a shark repellant, and a cleaning sponge still marketed by Simple Green.  Basic science investigations included research into sickle cell anemia, genetic variants of hemoglobin in humans, and studies of how oxygen-binding proteins have adapted to meet the varied needs of marine species and humans.  He was hopeful that a biochemical / biologic understanding of septic shock would lead to clinically relevant treatment options.  His extensive global travels took him to high altitudes to study mechanisms and strategies to rapidly acclimate humans to dramatic altitude change (though a climb of Everest was scrapped in the planning phase). In the famous Alvin submersible, he explored the depths of our oceans and saw volcanic eruptions and organisms whose energy source is the hydrothermal vents on the sea floor.  He traveled on the research vessel Alpha Helix to the Amazon, and collected shark and other samples off the coast of NC from the RVs Hatteras, Eastward, and Beveridge.  He particularly relished trips to Alaska, the South Pacific, and South America.

He was a founding member of Club NO and a lifetime member of the Admiral’s Club.

Joe had his own take on functional architecture.  He likely caused nightmares and heartache to the Beaufort Historical (“Hysterical”) Association after they denied him a plaque on his historic Beaufort home.  He took this as carte blanche to make modifications ad lib.  He loved gardening, flowers, and fruit trees.  It was his hope that Beaufort and Gloucester would become pioneers in marine aquaculture.

Many people benefited from Joe’s love of cooking and sharing food with friends.  He never wanted to see anyone go hungry.  A Caribbean spiny lobster was recently discovered in a -80°C freezer, stashed by Joe for future enjoyment.

Joe learned, shared and taught much as a member of the AA community, but more importantly, made lifelong friendships.

A source of joy in Joe’s life was the opportunity to take cross country travel adventures with his grandchildren Joe Frayer, Ira Wren, and Becky Frayer.  Joe was proud of his family, including those who do not share close lineal DNA.

During his last week, Joe was asked what he was thinking about.  He replied with “new methods for water purification” and daydreaming about Von Humboldt.  A friend said “no one lived more than Joe B.”  This was so true.

Joe Bonaventura wanted to be remembered as a good person.  He had an irrepressible sense of humor and loved a good (or even a very bad) fart joke.  He self-identified as an “American short hair mixed breed.”  Anyone who traveled with Joe can attest that he left his mark everywhere he went.  His fashion sense was unique, ranging from seaplane shirts to an outlandish trout purse.  Even on a phone call, you could tell when he was wearing a genuine smile.  Joe was, in the words of a beloved grandson “A F***ing Great Guy.”  Though he did not receive extreme unction, he was given the fitting send off of “bless his little heart.”

Perhaps it is fitting for a lifetime lover of space and astronomy that Joe died during the Perseid meteor shower.  Many of his friends and family report seeing spectacularly bright meteors during this time.

Some of his adventures in Alaska and the South Pacific are recalled in these videos.


We encourage you to share your memories of Joe on his Facebook page

In lieu of flowers, if you are so inclined, perhaps make a small compassionate gesture to someone in Joe’s memory.  He’d like that.

We will be establishing a scholarship in Joe’s memory that will support Duke Marine Lab students at any level in the natural sciences and arts who require financial support. Please send contributions to: Duke Marine Laboratory, 135 Duke Marine Lab Road, Beaufort, NC 28516, care of the Bonaventura Scholarship Fund.



Family to do services at later date

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