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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 23, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 40
George Comstock, 92, expert on tuberculosis control, treatment


George Wills Comstock, professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, died July 15 in Smithsburg, Md., after a long bout with prostate cancer. A distinguished epidemiologist who conducted seminal research on tuberculosis control and treatment and on cancer, heart disease and lung disease, he was 92.

Comstock taught at Johns Hopkins for more than 40 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, Edward Livingston Trudeau Medal from the American Thoracic Society, Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's Career Research Award. From 1979 to 1988, he served as editor in chief of the American Journal of Epidemiology. 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," Michael J. Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School, said. "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 in 1942 as a commissioned officer with the U.S. Public Health Service. During the last six years of his 20 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, 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, Md., and for the next three decades oversaw community-based research studies on numerous diseases including cancer, heart disease and eye disease. Renamed in Comstock's honor in 2005, the center is an important training ground for epidemiology students from around the world.

Born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., on Jan. 7, 1915, Comstock graduated from Antioch College in 1937 with honors in biology and chemistry. He obtained his medical degree from Harvard in 1941, a master of public health degree from the University of Michigan in 1951 and a doctorate of public health in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins in 1956.

Passionate about music, Comstock was part of symphony orchestras at different times of his life as a woodwind player, most recently as a second bassoonist in the Frederick Symphony Orchestra. 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 both the Elizabeth Towne Consort and the Washington County Museum Recorder Consort.

He also was a member of the Torch Club of Hagerstown and an active supporter of environmental causes and the Community Correctional Services Committee, which works with the prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

Comstock was predeceased by his wife of 60 years, Margaret Karr Comstock, and his sister, Ruth Comstock Dunlap. In 2001, he married the former Emma Lou Davis. In addition to his wife, Comstock is survived by three children and their spouses, five grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, two stepchildren and two stepgrandchildren.

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

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Music Program (P.O. Box 423, City Park, Hagerstown, MD 21741), Frederick Orchestra (P.O. Box 1439, Frederick, MD 21702) or George W. Comstock Center for Public Health Research and Prevention (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Office of External Affairs — Development, 615 N. Wolfe St., W1600, Baltimore, MD 21205).


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