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July 16, 2007

Remembering George Comstock

comstockGeorge Wills Comstock, a physician and professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, died on July 15, 2007, at his 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 control and treatment and on cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

Comstock served as a captain in the U. S. Public Health Service for 21 years and taught at Johns Hopkins University for more than 50 years. He became professor emeritus in 2003, but continued to teach courses on the epidemiologic basis for tuberculosis control until his death.  Comstock authored hundreds of scientific papers and received numerous 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. Comstock also served as editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Epidemiology from 1979 to 1988. Throughout his career, 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.

“George was one of the first people I met when I came to the School in 1984. I found he epitomized the drive for excellence that we all share,” said Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “He was a very kind and caring man. He will be greatly missed by his family, friends, colleagues and students.”

Comstock began his career in public health as a commissioned officer with the U.S. Public Health Service in 1942. During the last six years of his 21 years of service, he was the chief of Epidemiological Studies, Tuberculosis Program. Comstock ran the first trials of the BCG vaccine for tuberculosis in Georgia and Alabama. The studies conducted there from 1947 to 1951 were essential to determining the vaccine to be largely ineffective against tuberculosis, which led federal public health officials to decide against vaccinating children in the United States with BCG. In 1957, 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.

“George Comstock was a model to generations of epidemiologists, as a researcher and teacher and above all as a caring person who worked tirelessly to make the world healthier," said Jonathan Samet, MD, chair of the Bloomberg School's Department of Epidemiology. "He will long be remembered by students of the department for his encyclopedic knowledge of tuberculosis and his methodological rigor. He was a wise mentor to many, including myself as chair—I always listened when George spoke.”

In 1962, Comstock founded the Johns Hopkins Training Center for Public Health Research and Prevention in Hagerstown, Maryland. For the next 30 years, Comstock oversaw community-based research studies on numerous diseases including cancer, heart disease and eye disease. The Center was renamed in Comstock’s honor in 2005 and is an important training ground for epidemiology students from around the world.

Comstock was born in Niagara Falls, New York on January 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 School of Hygiene and Public Health.

One of the passions in his life was music. Comstock 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.

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.”

Dr. Comstock was predeceased by his wife of 60 years, Margaret Karr Comstock, MS and his sister, Ruth Comstock Dunlap, PhD.  In 2001, he married the former Emma Lou Davis of Smithsburg, Md. In addition to his wife, Comstock is survived by three children and their spouses: Gordon Frederick Comstock, MD, and Ginger Kelly Comstock of Arcade, New York; Lloyd Karr Comstock, MD, MPH and Judith Mae Kramer, MD, MS, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Martha Wills Comstock Williams, PhD and Daniel James Williams, PhD of Marietta, Georgia; five grandchildren: Barbara Comstock-King, MM, and her husband Daniel Mills King, Kimberly Kelly Comstock, PhD, Andrea Karr Comstock, Jana Campbell Comstock, and Lindy Burden Comstock; one great-granddaughter, Margaret Amelia King; two step-children: Jonathan Davis and Anna Davis, JD, MPH, and her husband Richard Gordon, JD; and two step-grandchildren, Aaron and Rachel Gordon.

The Comstock family will receive visitors from 7-9 p.m. on July 27 at the Rest Haven Funeral Chapel at 1601 Pennsylvania Ave. in Hagerstown, Md. A memorial service to celebrate Comstock's life will be held at the same location on July 28 at 3 p.m. and will be followed by a reception. Internment will be private. A service will also be held at the Bloomberg School of Public Health after Labor Day.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to one of the following organizations:

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Music Program
PO Box 423
City Park
Hagerstown, MD 21741

The Frederick Orchestra
PO Box 1439
Frederick, MD 21702-1439

George W. Comstock Center for Public Health Research and Prevention
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
615 N. Wolfe Street / W1600
Baltimore, MD 21205

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna L. Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.