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Most sculptors hope to have their work prominently displayed in a gallery or museum. But for Philadelphia native Frank Bender, his biggest hope for his sculptures were to identify homicide victims or the fugitives responsible.
Bender stumbled upon a career as a forensic sculptor after being unable to find a night class teaching anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He enlisted the help of his friend who worked at the morgue, and realized he could help “recompose the decomposed.” For the next 30 or so years, Bender worked with the FBI, Scotland Yard, and “America’s Most Wanted” to help identify dozens of victims and fugitives.
But in the midst of his career helping so many others, Bender received devastating news. His wife’s lung cancer had returned. A few months later, he received more bad news. Bender learned he had stage 4 pleural mesothelioma. His doctors gave him a prognosis of about 8 months.
Despite these poor circumstances, all Bender wanted to do was keep helping others.
Exposed to Asbestos in the Navy
Before pursuing a fine arts career, Bender served in the U.S. Navy from 1959-1961. During this time, he worked on two Navy destroyers. Bender often made repairs in the engine room. As his unit was most often sailing, he also would sleep aboard the ship in the laundry room, typically surrounded by clothes covered in various toxins.
Throughout the military, asbestos was heavily used, but Navy veterans are even more at risk of exposure because of its prevalence in building navy vessels. Asbestos can be found in almost any part of these ships, but especially in areas like the engine and boiler rooms where the equipment would need to be able to withstand high heat.
As someone working in the engine room making repairs, Bender was surely exposed to asbestos frequently. Many of these types of repairs would involve disturbing the asbestos-containing materials in some way, thus releasing the fibers into the air. With such tight quarters and poor ventilation on these ships, the fibers could become more concentrated in the air.
Since Bender and the rest of his unit often lived on the ship, asbestos and other toxins used in its construction and any equipment stored on the ship were a constantly looming danger for them.
A Legendary Career
After his stint in the Navy, Bender began pursuing a fine arts career initially as a photographer. He eventually found his way to the morgue, and realized he knew what an unrecognizable corpse looked like despite several gunshot wounds to the face. From that moment on, Bender started to hone his skills for reconfiguring victims' faces, as well as using old photographs and other evidence to create sculptures of fugitives who escaped years ago.
The police would occasionally send Bender skulls from cold cases and other crimes to see if he could help identify the victim after DNA evidence or dental records failed. Bender had a knack for envisioning a victim’s character and features based on tiny details. Bender once estimated his success rate of identifying victims and killers at around 85%.
One of his most famous successes came through his work for “America’s Most Wanted.” The show asked him to create an updated sculpture of murderer John Emil List, who had killed his wife, mother, and three children in 1971 before disappearing. The show commissioned the bust 18 years later, and Bender worked on creating a sculpture of what the accountant would look like based on old photographs.
Bender’s depiction showcased a jowly man with a receding hairline, complete with thick glasses. A woman watching the broadcast recognized the man as her neighbor going by the name of Robert Clark. A few weeks later, he was arrested and his fingerprints correctly identified him as the murderer.
During all these years of helping catch the bad guy, the asbestos fibers inhaled decades ago during his Navy career slowly took their toll on his body. The effects of asbestos exposure can take anywhere from 10 - 50 years to begin to show symptoms. Sadly for Bender, his disease spread aggressively before it was even detected.
Discovering Late-Stage Mesothelioma
Shortly after his wife’s recurrence of lung cancer, Bender received his own diagnosis. The cancer originated in the lining of his lungs, but as it progressed to a later stage, the disease spread throughout his chest and abdomen. Tumors surrounded much of his heart and ribs.
At this point in the disease, treatment options are extremely limited. Since the tumors have metastasized, curative treatment is generally not an option anymore. Instead, patients may seek palliative options to relieve some of their symptoms and provide a better quality of life. While even stage 1 mesothelioma has a poor prognosis, by this stage most patients are only expected to live one year or less.
Despite his poor prognosis and a lot of pain, Bender continued to work and even took on the role of his wife’s caregiver during her own battle. Even after entering hospice shortly after his 70th birthday, Bender could only worry about the road ahead for his daughters and how difficult it would be for them potentially losing both parents. No matter what circumstances he was facing in life, he always put others first.
Sadly, both Bender and his wife succumbed to their cancers a little more than one year apart, but neither will be forgotten. In one of his last interviews, Bender said he wanted to be remembered for all he did to try to help people. After such a prolific career and his personal life as a family man, it’s certain he’ll always be remembered in that way.