With the death of George Wills Comstock on July 15, 2007, the field lost one of its leading epidemiologists. Internationally renowned for his pioneering work in tuberculosis, George Comstock also conducted influential research on perinatal mortality, depression, cancer, and heart disease. His work was characterized by common sense, epidemiologic expertise, curiosity, and a healthy dose of skepticism.
Comstock received his education from Antioch College, Harvard Medical School, and the Schools of Public Health at the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins. He served in the US Public Health Service from 1942 to 1962, conducting the first trials of BCG vaccine for tuberculosis. Comstock then went to Hopkins, where he taught for over 40 years and won numerous teaching awards. He was Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Epidemiology from 1979 to 1988. As Editor, he often took the time to write personal notes to reviewers. His many honors1 included the John Snow Award from the American Public Health Association and the Trudeau Medal from the American Thoracic Society. In 2003, he was featured in the VOICES series in this journal.2 He remained active until his death, writing a commentary that appeared in our July 2007 issue.3
As founder of the Johns Hopkins Training Center for Public Health Research and Prevention—since renamed in his honor—Comstock personally oversaw the training of many public health practitioners and epidemiologists. Those generations of trainees learned from Comstock and his staff over group lunches and frequent informal gatherings. He was generous with his time and loved a good argument. He kept pace with new statistical and technological advances, but never lost sight of the importance of study design, plausibility, and public health relevance. Having seen first-hand the value of good infrastructure,2 Comstock directed 2 population censuses and developed one of the first biorepositories to study cancer precursors.
Those of us fortunate enough to have worked with George Comstock will remember him as someone who loved what he did. Remarkably, he continued to do it well even into his final years. He never sought the limelight, and was unfailingly modest. When asked to speak about his career, his characteristic response was to say he was “lucky all my life.”
Luck is what you make of it, and, in other less capable or enthusiastic hands, those opportunities might not have led to so many important contributions.
1. Altman LK, George W. Comstock, 92, dies; leader in fight against TB. The New York Times
. July 18, 2007.
2. Sandler DP. A conversation with George W. Comstock. Epidemiology
3. Comstock GW. On Abe and Yak. Epidemiology