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Dr. George Comstock: Researcher and educator

July 17, 2007

The passing of Dr. George Comstock this past weekend marks the final chapter of a distinguished career as a nationally known tuberculosis researcher.

But the John Hopkins University professor also deserves to be remembered for his involvement in the local CLUE projects. Gathered over decades, the information those efforts yielded provided a wealth of information into the possible early detection and cure of cancer.

The original CLUE study began in 1974 and involved taking a small sample of blood from the participants. The blood was frozen.

Years later, the participants were asked to give blood again and answer questionnaires. Researchers then looked at the original samples, to see what, if anything, might have provided an early indication that the patient was susceptible to cancer.

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In 1989, Dr. Comstock and Johns Hopkins launched CLUE II. From November to May 1989, more than 32,000 people participated, giving a small blood sample and receiving a free cholesterol screening at the same time.

Seven years later, in 1996, the follow-up began, with researchers hoping to get at least 23,000 responses.

In 1998, Dr. Comstock told The Herald-Mail that the results so far had been intriguing.

"The most interesting thing we found was some evidence that people who have a thickening of the arteries in the neck - are more likely to be infected with the cytomegalo (big cell) virus. The question now is whether this is just a handy place for the virus to hang out, or whether the virus damaged the blood vessels and caused the plaques, or what."

But research was only part of what made Comstock what he was. Unlike what might have been expected of someone who had made the breakthroughs he did as a tuberculosis researcher, he was humble, crediting others in the local Johns Hopkins unit with much of the credit for what had been accomplished.

He had a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor, with which he deflected attempts to give him genius status.

Dr. Comstock was also a musician, playing the recorder - a kind of flute - with the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Recorder Consort for 25 years.

He gave it up at age 89 in 2004, not because he was tired of the music, but because he had many other things he wanted to do, including reviewing manuscripts for medical journals.

At age 92, Dr. Comstock had retired, but hadn't really stopped working. His widow, Emma Lou Comstock, said that he had continued to write and review medical journals and that there were textbook chapters he had written that have yet to be printed.

In addition to his ability as a researcher, Dr. Comstock embraced the role of educator as well. He realized that part of preventing disease, whether it be tuberculosis, heart disease or cancer, is making the public aware of the risk factors involved.

And speaking of involved, we are glad that he was involved in the life of this community as long as he was. If there were a hall of fame for Washington County citizens, Dr. Comstock would deserve a place alongside Mike Callas, Ed Henson and the good doctor's first wife, Margaret Comstock.

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