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Disease fighter

After years of research, Dr. George W. Comstock is coping with cancer

After years of research, Dr. George W. Comstock is coping with cancer

July 23, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

SMITHSBURG - When 26,000 people in Washington County gave blood samples for health research in 1974, project organizer Dr. George W. Comstock was the first donor.

He also was first in 1989, when 33,000 more samples were gathered.

The projects, known as CLUE I and CLUE II, helped track the causes of cancer, strokes and heart disease.

The projects are going strong, still contributing to health studies.

At 91, Comstock is active, too. He teaches periodically at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. He writes book chapters and reviews journal articles.

As a cancer patient, he also might be a subject in his own research.

Eleven years ago, Comstock was diagnosed with prostate cancer. About three years ago, it metastasized, or spread, to his bones, he said.

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"I'm sure the people who study prostate cancer will have pulled my blood" sample to review it, said Comstock, who lives with his wife, Emma Lou, near Smithsburg.

Whether his blood has been used for research is uncertain. Donors' identities stay secret.

Comstock said at least 30 blood samples from people with cancer and 60 control samples would be needed for a study - enough to rule out chance. Prostate cancer is a common form, so there are many samples from which to choose.

At the end of April and beginning of May, Comstock had 10 radiation sessions to prevent cancer from spreading to his spinal cord. Two weeks later, he went to an American Thoracic Society conference in San Diego.

So far, Comstock's main problem with cancer is tiring easily.

"If I don't get about 12 hours' sleep at night, I'm no good the next day," he said.

He takes Tylenol if he feels pain, but trains his mind not to think about it.

"George just decides it doesn't hurt," Emma Lou Comstock said.

By riding his bicycle long distances in his 70s and taking the stairs instead of elevators in his 80s, he earned a reputation of being fit.

"I've worked with Dr. Comstock for about 18 years. He's one of those people that - he seems to be ageless ..." said Sandra Hoffman, the assistant director of the George W. Comstock Center for Public Health Research and Prevention in Hagerstown.

"Dr. Comstock has always been a very pragmatic person, and I guess that's part of being a scientist," Hoffman said. "He said if you live long enough, you're going to develop diseases."

Comstock long has been considered a top expert on tuberculosis. He helped stamp out an epidemic among Eskimo villages in Alaska in the 1950s and '60s.

He started in the U.S. Public Health Service in 1941 and stayed for 21 years, when he retired and joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University.

"When most people end their careers, he came here and taught generations of students," said Dr. Michael J. Klag, the dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a student of Comstock's more than 20 years ago.

He said Comstock instilled in students: "Life is often hard, and answers don't come prepackaged."

Even at a prestigious school that attracts students from around the world, "he commands a lot of respect," Klag said. "For people to take a course in tuberculosis with him is sitting at the feet of the master."

Comstock was ahead of the curve by advocating clinical trials in the 1940s and '50s, he said.

In January 2000, Margaret Karr Comstock, George's wife of 61 years, died.

Later that year, George and Emma Lou - who was Margaret's friend - met through George's daughter, Martha Williams.

George asked Emma Lou to see a travelogue, or presentation, about a faraway destination.

In finding the courage to ask her out, "I was almost as bad as a teenager," he remembered. "Martha said, 'Go for it. Go for it.'"

Emma Lou said she warned George about their relationship progressing too fast. He told her he didn't have time to be too deliberate.

They got married on March 31, 2001, and blended their families - his three children and her two, plus their families.

"He never wastes time," Emma Lou Comstock said.

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