George W. Comstock; Conducted Critical TB Studies

Epidemiologist George Comstock founded Johns Hopkins University's Training Center for Public Health Research and Prevention, which was later renamed for him.
Epidemiologist George Comstock founded Johns Hopkins University's Training Center for Public Health Research and Prevention, which was later renamed for him. (Photos Courtesy Of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School Of Public Health)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

George W. Comstock, 92, who conducted influential studies on the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, a lung disease that remains a leading cause of death in much of the world, died July 15 at his home in Smithsburg, Md. He had prostate cancer.

Dr. Comstock was an epidemiologist, a researcher who looks at how a disease occurs in a population and can be controlled. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he performed U.S. Public Health Service studies that led to significant findings about TB vaccines.

His work in Alaska during a tuberculosis outbreak in the late 1950s was particularly notable. Along with other studies, his made the drug isoniazid the current standard for preventive TB therapy.

A second phase of his career began in 1962, when he founded Johns Hopkins University's Training Center for Public Health Research and Prevention in Hagerstown, Md., renamed in Dr. Comstock's honor in 2004. Collaborating with public health authorities, he led community-based health studies on such illnesses as cancer, heart disease and eye disease for more than four decades.

His work testing serums on large populations over time was considered an early model for community-based participatory research, said Jonathan Samet, chairman of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

George Wills Comstock, whose father was a metallurgist, was born Jan. 7, 1915, in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

While pursuing his undergraduate studies at Antioch College in Ohio, he participated in a work-study program at Eli Lilly's pharmaceutical laboratory. He joined a group studying the systemic disease pellagra, and as he joked that the internship "mostly involved washing glassware and cleaning dog cages," a mentor guided him to nutritional epidemiology and public health.

He was a 1941 graduate of Harvard University medical school and received a master's degree from the University of Michigan School of Public Health in 1951. He received a doctorate in 1956 from what was then called the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

Dr. Comstock had joined the Public Health Service after Harvard and helped conduct trials of the BCG vaccine for a tuberculosis study in Georgia and Alabama. He was part of a team that concluded the vaccine was largely ineffective against tuberculosis because the disease was more prevalent among those who had taken it than those who had not.

His tests led federal public health officials to avoid widespread use of the vaccine in the United States, though it has been used elsewhere. His team won an award from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, prompting him to tell an interviewer years later: "I think this is the first time anyone has ever gotten an award for persuading people not to do something."

He wrote hundreds of scientific papers and received numerous awards for his work on tuberculosis control. He was editor in chief of the American Journal of Epidemiology from 1979 to 1988.

Toward the end of his career, he told the journal Epidemiology that he had seen many improvements in his profession, among them a greater emphasis on statistics and better technology.

However, he added, "I think that we have moved too far from public health. Not many on the Hopkins faculty, for example, have had contact with a public health department. I think that is too bad, because epidemiology has to be the basic science of public health. Public health is both the study of populations and health services."

A woodwind player, he was involved in small groups specializing in baroque and Renaissance-era music. For many years, he was second bassoonist in the Frederick Symphony Orchestra in Maryland.

His wife of 61 years, Margaret Karr Comstock, died in 2000.

Survivors include his wife of six years, Emma Lou Davis Comstock of Smithsburg, Md.; three children from his first marriage, Dr. Gordon F. Comstock of Arcade, N.Y., Dr. Lloyd K. Comstock of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Martha Comstock Williams of Marietta, Ga.; two stepchildren, Jonathan Davis of Lexington, Okla., and Anna Davis of Reisterstown, Md.; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company