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Mastering the Art of Tuberculosis Control

By Jackie Powder

It's been an enduring mantra for George W. Comstock: "I've been lucky all my life."

Lucky to do seminal research on tuberculosis prevention and treatment.

Lucky to be editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Epidemiology for nine years.

Lucky to win numerous top public health awards for work on TB control, innovative community health studies and the mentoring of young epidemiologists.

The professor emeritus of Epidemiology may call it luck, but his colleagues are inclined to say that his successes are born of commitment, determination and passion. In recognition of his contributions to public health and his 40-plus-year career at the School, Dean Michael J. Klag commissioned a portrait of Comstock to hang in the School's boardroom. At a ceremony in February, his likeness joined those of other public health legends whose portraits hang in the School.

Klag remembers being a student at the Bloomberg School when he first met Comstock, now 92. "He welcomed me, as he did everyone else, with open arms," says Klag, MD, MPH '87. "He is a mentor who offers support and demands intellectual rigor and honesty."

By the time Comstock, MD, DrPH '56, MPH, arrived at the School in 1962, he had already made his mark in TB research as chief of epidemiologic studies for the U.S. Public Health Service, running the first trials of the BCG vaccine in Georgia and Alabama. Those pivotal studies, conducted from 1947 to 1950, found the vaccine to be largely ineffective against TB, leading federal health officials to decide against vaccinating children with BCG.

In 1957, Comstock moved his research to Alaska, where the disease was rampant. His work there demonstrated the effectiveness of the drug isoniazid in preventing TB—data that the CDC still used in 2000 when the agency updated its latent TB treatment guidelines.

As the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Training Center for Public Health Research and Prevention, which opened in 1962 in Hagerstown, Maryland, Comstock oversaw numerous community-based research studies on cancer and heart disease. The Center, still a training ground for epidemiology students, was renamed in Comstock's honor in 2005. His other honors include the Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's Career Research Award.

"He has influenced generations of students who now hold leadership positions throughout the world, whether in public health agencies or academic organizations," Klag says. "The School, and I personally, owe him a great deal."