DURHAM, N.C. – More than 250 guests gathered at the Duke Marine Lab on Friday, April 28, to celebrate the life and career of the late, great Joe Bonaventura and dedicate a grove of trees in his honor.

Bonaventura, who passed away in August 2021, joined the Marine Lab faculty in 1972 and was a pioneering scholar in the field of marine biotechnology.

He was known for his boundless curiosity and remarkable intellect, and for his dedication to students and collegiality with peers.

The newly dedicated Bonaventura Grove is located near the heart of the Marine Lab campus, adjacent to the Dining Hall, where Bonaventura loved to prepare meals for students.

Bonaventura Grove

New decking and tables, with seating for about 50, provide an inviting spot for studying and socializing beneath the cooling canopy of cedars as old as the Marine Lab itself and live oaks that were planted as part of the Marine Lab’s restoration and recovery after Hurricane Florence struck the campus in 2018. Enhanced wireless connectivity makes it a good place for studying and collaborating, too.

Large ceramic pieces of art, commissioned by the Bonaventura family, are interspersed around the seating areas. Glazed in blues, grays and browns and patterned with swirling, wave-like shapes and figures, they echo the beauty of the coastal and marine environments and subtly emphasize the importance of creativity in learning, invention and exploration.

“It’s a special place—one that Joe, who never met a stranger, would have loved.,” said Marine Lab Director Andrew Read. “It’s easy to imagine him sitting here, sharing coffee and biscotti with colleagues and students, tossing around ideas with them and having friendly debates, punctuated with lots of laughter.”

To further honor Bonaventura’s love of learning and teaching, his family has created a memorial scholarship fund that will support Duke students conducting independent research projects at the Marine Lab.

Contributions to the fund can be sent to: Duke Marine Laboratory, 135 Duke Marine Lab Road, Beaufort, NC 28516, in care of the Bonaventura Scholarship Fund.

Art in Bonaventura Grove

Widely respected for his influential research and scholarship in the fields of biomedicine and biochemistry, Bonaventura held faculty appointments at both the Nicholas School of the Environment and the School of Medicine during his career at Duke. 

He co-founded the Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Center at the Duke Marine Lab, which supported cutting-edge interdisciplinary research across the university and helped establish Duke as a global leader in the emerging field of marine biomedicine.

A prolific inventor, he created or co-created many biomedical devices and technological advances designed to improve environmental and human health. Among the most notable and novel of these was a prototype artificial gill system for humans that uses a sponge-like substance made in part from hemoglobin to extract oxygen from seawater—theoretically allowing humans to stay underwater indefinitely.

He also pioneered new techniques to immobilize hemoglobin and other molecules so they don’t lose their bioactivity and was the first to demonstrate that hemoglobin could be grown in yeast, a discovery that opened the door for the creation of injectable blood substitutes and new treatment options for septic shock.

Additional research interests included sickle cell anemia; genetic variants of hemoglobin in humans; oxygen-binding compounds in other species; nontoxic approaches to protected submerged surfaces from fouling; and technologies to help humans rapidly acclimate to dramatic changes in altitude.

In the classroom, Bonaventura’s love of learning and flair for teaching was legendary and inspired many students to follow in his footsteps and become educators and researchers themselves.

“Joe’s legacy is immense,” said Read. “Nearly everyone at the dedication ceremony, from his family to former students and colleagues, had stories about how he helped shape their lives for the better. He had a profound impact that stretches far beyond the Marine Lab.”