Charles W. Denko, Ph.D., M.D., was a prominent biochemist, physician and scientist whose groundbreaking research was based on the causes and treatment of osteoarthritis. He is also credited with a bibliography of over a hundred papers in scientific publications and book chapters. A beloved father, husband, and teacher, Dr. Denko’s efforts have successfully paved the way towards future research behind the causes of arthritis and connective tissue disorders, and methods of coping and treatment to benefit those with such disorders.
Charles Denko was born of Russian immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1909 and 1914. At age one Charles was diagnosed with polio that left him with a severely crippled leg. A member of the Shriners Society, who took notice of Charles and his handicap, arraigned for surgery and physical therapy which enabled Charles to walk without pain but with a lifelong limp. Although by then able to walk comfortably, Charles was faced with another obstacle; he entered his first year at school able to communicate only in Russian. Fortunately, his teacher was kind enough to only give Charles special assignments in English. Within a year he could speak perfect English, without an accent, having learned from a teacher.
Charles Denko would receive his B.S. from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and his M.S. and Ph.D., with emphasis on organic chemistry and physiologic chemistry, respectively, from Pennsylvania State University. Recognizing Charles’ aptitude for the sciences, Charles’ professor, mentor, and friend, A.K. Anderson, Ph.D., who was bound to a wheelchair, encouraged Charles too search for new gold compounds for arthritis, a treatment known as chrysotherapy. His professor’s suggestions, and his condition sparked the beginning of Charles’ career. For the next 50 years Dr. Denko explored the biochemical abnormalities of various forms of arthritis and other connective tissue disorders and the means to correct them.
In the time between his earning his Ph.D. and his M.D., Charles enlisted in the arm where he was offered a place on the Manhattan Project (Leading to the atomic and nuclear bombs) but declined because his scientific interest was in the chemistry of the body in health and disease. He was given a nutrition laboratory in which he studied the effect of army rations on healthy conscientious objectives. (Young men unwilling to fight for religious reasons) Having enlisted despite being a 4F from his shortened leg and serving as a sanitation officer, Charles never saw combat or carried a weapon during his tenure in the army. Instead he supervised sanitation in displaced persons camps during the Second World War. During this time he also found homes for 30 Jewish orphans who lost their parents in the war. Although he was offered the rank of Major, Charles respectfully declined and left the service to enroll at Johns Hopkins University Medical School under the GI Bill. In recognition of his efforts while enlisted, the army Medical Library asked Charles for his photographic portrait to be included in a collection of 400 major contributors to medicine since the European Renaissances, an offer that he humbly accepted.
At Johns Hopkins University Medical School Charles earned his M.D. There Charles would meet the love of his life and future wife, Dr. Joanne D. Denko. An important influence for Joanne’s career, Charles lent her his support and encouragement as well as instructing her on how to compose scientific papers. Charles also interned at the Research and Educational Hospitals at the University of Chicago. After finalizing his education Dr. Denko went on to become an instructor within the Division of Rheumatology at the University of Michigan, an assistant professor at Ohio State University, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and director of research at the Fairview Hospital, also located in Cleveland. Charles taught students, lectured at various medical schools and rheumatology congresses throughout the Western world.
Dr’s Charles and Joanne Denko had three sons, Christopher, Nicholas, and Timothey. As a father he enjoyed spending time with his sons in activities such as the Boy Scouts and Indian Guides. Over the following years the Denko family enjoyed a great deal of traveling together, often including the sons, such as camping up and down the Alcan Highway, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and Siberia’s Lake Baikal. The also made man trips to encounter wildlife, like visiting baby seals along the icy St. Lawrence River, gorillas in the Central Africa, Komodo dragons in Indonesia, and penguins in Antarctica. Dr. Denko’s final trip before his death began at Resolute in the Canadian Arctic, and Charles was given special helicopter rides to see the animals. He felt close to muskoxen because they formed a circle to protect their young. The trip followed the Northwest Passage and ended in Provide Nya, northeast Russia, where the travelers were detained because of the infamous 9/11 terrorist attack back home.
The death of Dr. Charles W. Denko was a sadness to both his family and the professional medical world. Although he is not among us today, Charles Denko is survived by his groundbreaking research and by his family. His book-length biography The Life of Charles W. Denko, Ph.D., M.D., a more detailed record of his life written by his widow Dr. Joanne D. Denko, is currently available at Cypress House in Fort Bragg, California, and among booksellers both online an in-store.