In My Life

Research doctor has been lucky all his life

Research doctor has been lucky all his life

April 26, 2007|by DENNIS SHAW

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of profiles of area residents who share the stories of their lives and experiences.

Dr. George W. Comstock says a lot of people have helped him in his years of working in public health ... tens of thousands of people, in fact.

He can't tell you who they are, but one of them could well be you.

"The people of Washington County have contributed more to the knowledge of public health, per capita, than any other people in the world," Comstock said. "We're world-beaters. I'm proud to be a Washington Countian."

Comstock became a Washington Countian in 1962, when Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health opened a training and research center here, in a building next to the Health Department on Pennsylvania Avenue.


In the 45 years since then, more than 75,000 county residents have participated in programs to help find the causes and potential cures for heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Every participant was guaranteed confidentiality, which is why their names won't appear here. But each one can rest assured that they have advanced medical knowledge and assisted with the training of future leaders in public health.

When Comstock came to Washington County in 1962, he already had spent more than two decades attending to the health needs of others. He was 47, and recently had retired as a medical director (captain) in the Public Health Service.

It would be 41 years until he "retired" again, in September 2003, this time after four more decades of public health service with the people of Washington County.

"My motto is, 'I've been lucky all my life,'" he said. "I never really thought of it too much in terms of achievement. It's been fun!"

The early days

George W. Comstock was born in 1915 in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Discarding his original idea of becoming a metallurgical engineer, he went into medicine and got his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1937. After considering the idea of becoming a country doctor, he instead joined the Public Health Service (PHS), one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.

(The others are the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force under the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard under the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Department of Commerce.)

The Public Health Service, under the Department of Health and Human Services, was founded in 1798 by President John Adams as a network of hospitals for American seamen. And it was on the sea that Comstock began his duty, serving aboard ship for a year.

Then came what he calls "the luckiest break of my life." He was sent to Columbus, Ga., where he directed research projects for the Centers for Disease Control. His specialty there, as through most of his life, was epidemiology, particularly tuberculosis.

During six years there, he was appointed to the faculty of the School of Public Health of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He got his doctor of public health degree in one year, became a full-time faculty member at Hopkins in 1962 and professor of epidemiology in 1965.

Living in Laurel, Md., he continued long-term studies in the effectiveness of TB vaccines and the risks associated with having inactive TB.

He retired from the PHS in 1962 and became a consultant to various wide-ranging studies. Those included studies of lung disease in Japanese and American telephone workers, TB vaccine trials in south India and experiments in TB prevention among native populations in Alaska, where TB rates were among the highest ever found.

Distinct from most such studies, this last one included not only causes of the disease, but also treated the disease in people who were infected. Unlike many placebo control trials, Comstock devised a unique plan in which the placebo and treatment groups were offered an additional year of treatment. As a result, it was determined that nine months of preventive treatment was optimal.

"This demonstration is something I am very proud of," Comstock said. "I consider it to be a star in my crown."

Coming to Washington County

The next "remote" spot on Comstock's itinerary was Washington County, which wasn't exactly new to the field of medical studies. As far back as 1918, the PHS sponsored a dental study here that examined the teeth of schoolchildren and developed an index of dental health. It also systematically weighed children, and the study broadened to include the patterns of growth of school-age children.

In 1962, the National Cancer Institute started a registry of diagnosed cancer cases and what happens to them. Later that year, Comstock moved to Smithsburg and started the studies used in the training of graduate students.

Called the Johns Hopkins University Training Center for Public Health Research, it shared a building with the National Cancer Institute on Pennsylvania Avenue in what then was next door to the Washington County Health Department.

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