DURHAM, N.C. – Joseph “Joe” Bonaventura, professor emeritus of marine science and conservation at the Duke University Marine Lab and a member of the Duke faculty since 1972, died August 14 following six years of treatment for liver cancer. He was 79.

A memorial service will be held later this year on the Duke Marine Lab campus in Beaufort, N.C.

In lieu of flowers, Bonaventura’s family requests that people share their memories of him on his Facebook page and “make a small compassionate gesture to someone in Joe’s memory. He’d like that.”

Duke has lowered university flags across campus today to commemorate his death.

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, his love of learning and flair for teaching was legendary and inspired many students to follow in his footsteps and become educators and researchers themselves.

His flair for living was equally legendary.

“Joe was famous for his intellect, humor, compassion, cooking, and whimsical sartorial sense. He was much loved by everyone here in Beaufort,” said Marine Lab Director Andy Read.

Bonaventura earned a doctoral degree in biochemistry from the University of Texas at Austin in 1968 and a Bachelor of Arts degree from San Diego State University in 1963.

He is survived by his daughter, Dr. Marina Bonaventura of Asheboro, N.C., and Michelle Frayer of Sarasota, Fla.; grandchildren Joseph Frayer and Rebecca Frayer of Sarasota, and Ira Ansel Wren (Aaron “Tre” Laverne Queen, III) of Asheboro; and great-granddaughter Teagan Frayer of Sarasota; as well as two sisters and a brother-in-law.