George W. Comstock, 92

July 20, 2007

JAN. 7, 1915-JULY 15, 2007

SMITHSBURG - George Wills Comstock, a physician and professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, died on July 15, 2007, at home in Smithsburg, Md. at age 92 after a long bout with cancer of the prostate. He was a distinguished epidemiologist who conducted seminal research on tuberculosis prevention, control and treatment.

After Dr. Comstock retired as a captain from a 21-year career in the U.S. Public Health Service, he taught at Johns Hopkins for more than 40 years. He became Professor Emeritus in 2003, but continued to teach courses on the epidemiological basis for tuberculosis control until his death. The author of hundreds of scientific papers, he was also the recipient of numerous top public health awards for his work on tuberculosis control, including the John Snow Award from the American Public Health Association, the Edward Livingston Trudeau Medal from the American Thoracic Society, the Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's Career Research Award held for 40 years. He served as editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Epidemiology from 1979 to 1988. Throughout his career, Dr. Comstock developed and conducted many innovative community health studies. His work influenced generations of students who now hold top leadership positions in public health agencies and academic organizations throughout the world.


Dr. Comstock's first career was as a commissioned officer with the U.S. Public Health Service from 1942 to 1962. During the last six years of his service, he was the Chief of Epidemiological Studies, Tuberculosis Program for the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Comstock ran the first trials of the BCG vaccine for tuberculosis in Georgia and Alabama. The studies conducted there from 1947 to 1951 were key to finding the vaccine to be largely ineffective against tuberculosis and led federal public health officials to decide against vaccinating children in the United States with BCG.

In 1957, Dr. Comstock conducted research in Bethel, Alaska, where tuberculosis was rampant. His work there demonstrated the effectiveness of the drug isoniazid in preventing tuberculosis - data that the CDC still used in 2000 when the agency updated its treatment guidelines for latent tuberculosis.

Later, Dr. Comstock was the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Training Center for Public Health Research and Prevention, which opened in 1962 in Hagerstown, Md. From 1962 to 2003, Dr. Comstock oversaw community-based research studies on numerous diseases including cancer, heart disease and eye disease. The Center, which was renamed in Comstock's honor in 2005, has been an important training ground for epidemiology students from around the world.

Dr. Comstock was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y. on Jan. 7, 1915, son of metallurgical engineer George Frederick Comstock and Ella Gardner Wills Comstock. He graduated from Antioch College in 1937 with honors in biology and chemistry. He obtained his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1941 and a Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan, School of Public Health in 1951. In 1956, he earned a Doctorate of Public Health in Epidemiology from what was then known as the Johns Hopkins University, School of Hygiene and Public Health.

One of the passions in his life was music. He was part of symphony orchestras at different times of his life as a woodwind player. Most recently, he played in the Frederick Symphony Orchestra as a second bassoonist. "Early Music" was frequently heard in his household as he taught the whole family to play recorders and as he learned to play many Baroque and Renaissance era woodwind instruments. He was a co-founder of the Elizabeth Towne Consort in 1965 and of the Washington County Museum Recorder Consort in 1979.

Dr. Comstock was a member of the Torch Club of Hagerstown and an active supporter of environmental causes and the Community Correctional Services Committee Inc., which works with the prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. He was a major supporter of community musical and other cultural affairs.

George Comstock frequently quoted these words from Horace Mann's 1859 commencement speech at Antioch College: "I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words: Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for humanity." This struck him as the main purpose of living; as Comstock said, "Most of us aren't going to win any big victories, but we can win little ones every day, and they mount up." In tuberculosis control, in chronic disease epidemiology, in education of students from all corners of the globe his goal was to win these victories. And living this way he was, as he often said, "lucky all my life."

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