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Nathaniel Charles Comfort, M.S., Ph.D.

Photo of Dr. Nathaniel Charles Comfort, M.S., Ph.D.

Professor of History of Medicine

Research Interests: Oral history and interviewing; History of recent science; History of biology, especially genetics, molecular biology and biomedicine ...read more

Background

Dr. Nathaniel Comfort is a professor of the history of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His research focuses on heredity and health in 20th-century America.

He has a joint appointment in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ History of Science and Technology Department.

Dr. Comfort received his undergraduate degree in marine biology from the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his M.S. in neurobiology and behavior from Cornell University and his Ph.D. from SUNY Stony Brook. Dr. Comfort joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2003.

Prior to joining Johns Hopkins, Dr. Comfort was an associate professor of history and the deputy director at the Center for History of Recent Science at the George Washington University.

He is a member of the History of Science Society and the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology. He serves on the editorial board of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, and is the author of the 2012 book The Science of Human Perfection: Heredity and Health in Twentieth Century America.

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Titles

  • Professor of History of Medicine

Departments / Divisions

Education

Degrees

  • B.A., University of California (Berkeley) (California) (1985)
  • M.S., Cornell College (Iowa) (1990)
  • Ph.D., State University of New York (New York) (1997)

Research & Publications

Research Summary

Dr. Comfort is interested in heredity and health in 20th-century America. His recent book project, The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine, examines the growth and evolution of medical genetics from the early days of Mendelism to the Human Genome Project. In it, he shows that heredity, health and human improvement have always been intermingled; there was no break when medical genetics became "legitimate." The professionalization of medical genetics that began around mid-century involved many refinements of the message, but the old goals of human improvement dating back to Francis Galton carry down to present-day efforts such as gene therapy. Likewise, trendy contemporary notions of individualism and personalized medicine have roots back in the late nineteenth century, with Archibald Garrod's emphasis on diathesis and biochemical individuality. He strenuously avoids labeling one of these good and the other bad; these twin impulses resonate with and feed off of one another, and both have inspiring and sobering implications for how we think about health and identity today.

Selected Publications

  1. Comfort N. "A Twisted Answer to Life and the Universe." Hidden Treasure: 175 Years of the National Library of Medicine. Ed. Michael Sappol. Bethesda, MD: National Library of Medicine, 2012. 218. Print.
  2. Comfort N. "When your sources talk back: toward a multimodal approach to scientific biography." J Hist Biol. 2011 Winter;44(4):651-69. doi: 10.1007/s10739-011-9273-9.
  3. Comfort N. "The prisoner as model organism: malaria research at Stateville Penitentiary." Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2009 Sep;40(3):190-203. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2009.06.007. Epub 2009 Aug 4.
  4. Comfort N. "Cultural Darwinism." The European Legacy. 2008;13(5):623-37.
  5. Comfort N. "'Polyhybrid heterogeneous bastards': promoting medical genetics in America in the 1930s and 1940s." J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2006 Oct;61(4):415-55. Epub 2006 Jun 8.
  6. Comfort N. "Zelig (recent biographies of Francis Galton)." Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 2006;80(2):348-363.
  7. Comfort N. "Barbara McClintock's controlling elements: premature discovery or stillborn theory?" Prematurity in Scientific Discovery. Ed. Ernest B. Hook. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002. 175-199. Print.
  8. Comfort N. "'The real point is control': the reception of Barbara McClintock's controlling elements." J Hist Biol. 1999 Spring;32(1):133-62.

Academic Affiliations & Courses

Courses and Syllabi

  • Individuality in Medicine from the Ancients to the Genome Age (co-taught with Gianna Pomata) (AS140.425)
  • Oral History Theory and Method (AS140.330)
  • Oral History Theory and Method (SOM150.713)
  • Genetics in Medicine and Society (AS140.143)
  • History of Twentieth Century Biomedicine (SOM150.714)

Activities & Honors

Memberships

  • History of Science Society, 1994
  • International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, 1995

Professional Activities

  • Colloquium Organizer, History of Medicine Department, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 2009 - 2010
  • Colloquium Organizer, History of Medicine Department, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 2003 - 2008
  • Co-organizer, Johns Hopkins University, 2006
    Joint Atlantic Seminar on the History of Biology
  • Editorial Board, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 2011 - 2015
  • Editorial Board, Isis, 2008 - 2010
  • Editorial Board, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 1998 - 2002
  • Medical School Council, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 2009 - 2011
  • Operations Review Committee, International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, 2000 - 2002
  • Organizer, George Washington University, 2001
    Joint Atlantic Seminar on the History of Biology
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