Every summer, beginning in the 1950s, there was a familiar ritual. Betty and Jerry Gross would pack their three kids and ever-suffering cats into a station wagon and relocate to a rented cottage in Chilmark, Menemsha or Gay Head (Aquinnah). The ritual continued for more than a decade until Jerry’s friend, Pauline Vanderhoop, offered to sell him land not far from the Gay Head cliffs. The house he and Betty built, low against a hill and ringed by scrub oak, briars and blossoms, gave Jerry the happiest memories of a long life.
Jerry died on Jan. 27, one month shy of his 97th birthday, daydreaming of Aquinnah and confident that he was again in transit to the house and land he loved.
Jerry was a biologist and a physician — a man with an uncommon fascination for the structure and interactions of cells. He spent great swaths of his 60-plus year career at Harvard Medical School and the Mass General Hospital pondering enigmas of limb regeneration in amphibians. Of particular interest were enzymatic actions that return the tissues of a wound site on a salamander to a near-embryonic state, allowing a lost limb to regenerate. Crack that mystery, Jerry reasoned, and you could solve the thorniest challenges in wound healing.
As with so many scientists, his specialized knowledge was his conversational gateway into broader phenomena: politics, psychology, planetary science, cosmology and religion. He loved to debate these topics with friends. It would be satisfying to report that he did so with neighborly fellowship, but more often, his social mode was the cocktail equivalent lunge and parry. “I was a member of the fencing team at Stuyvesant High School and at MIT,” Jerry wrote in an autobiographical sketch on the occasion of his 80th birthday. “I’ve always felt the spirit that goes with dueling pervades my professional actions.”
In Aquinnah, Jerry fenced his way through half a century of hot, heavily lubricated summer evenings. If neighbors and friends were sometimes nicked by his foil, they also got generous doses of his warmth, camaraderie and compassion. He would do anything in his power to help people who were sick. He loved to share what he knew of medicine, along with anything he’d deduced about the workings of the universe.
In the darkness, Jerry liked to drape an arm over your shoulder and point out lesser-known constellations in the shimmering sky, accompanied by the sound of waves pounding or lapping the shore. On a fine night, he might pull you upstairs to a telescope mounted on the roof above his wife’s painting studio. The magnificent scents and sights and sounds of Martha’s Vineyard, and especially Aquinnah by night, were all Jerry needed or wished to know about his maker. If the next morning was fair, he would pull you along on a run to the beach. You’d plunge into the cold surf, but the conversation and passions stirred the evening before would never be doused so simply.
He also spent peaceful mornings and nights on his front deck, smoking his pipe and listening to his family play music around him. When he died, he was wrapped close in warm Vineyard memories. Jerry’s flashes of insight, the intensity of his attention, the depth of his affections and the complex spectrum of his emotions will be sorely missed by his wife Betty, his three children and their families spanning four generations; his sister, Lois, and by friends in many countries.
The family is planning a memorial service in Boston the third week of March. They also hope to celebrate Jerry’s life in Aquinnah this summer. Click here to read about his life’s work.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Massachuetts General Hospital’s neurology research.