Lives of the fellows

Julius Hiram Comroe

b.13 March 1911 d.31 July 1984
AB Pennsylvania(1931) MD(1934) FRCP(1971) Hon DSc Chicago(1968) Hon MD Sweden(1968)

Julius Comroe was the son of a physician and was born in York, Pennsylvania, USA. He did his early training in the University of Pennsylvania and became a faculty member in pharmacology. He was appointed chairman of the department of physiology and pharmacology in 1935.

After war service in the chemical warfare branch during the second world war, he collaborated with his lifelong friend, Robert D Dripps, professor of anaesthesia at the University of Pennsylvania. He carried out classic studies of the function of aortic chemo receptors. Dripps and Comroe developed sophisticated equipment to quantify pulmonary function. They studied artifical respiration, pulmonary gas exchange and the regulation of ventilation during exercise. Comroe’s book The Lung, Chicago, Year Book Publishers, 1955, was a landmark which for many physicians was their introduction to pulmonary physiology and lung function testing.

In 1957 he moved to California to become the first director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute in the University of California. Here he developed a novel, multidisciplinary institution in which he mixed top flight basic and clinical scientists. Although he was extremely successful in attracting large amounts of funds to the Institute in the form of block grants from the National Institutes of Health, he also succeeded in the much more difficult task of persuading the University of California to grant tenure and full staff facilities to his recruits. He was far-sighted enough to link this research institute with the basic departments already existing in the hospital, in the form of joint appointments. This greatly strengthened the whole San Francisco medical campus. In all this he was staunchly supported by the vice-chancellor, Clark Kerr.

His other great gift was as a teacher. The CVRI became a major centre for training in research methods. He also did not neglect teaching the art of communication, and of critical evaluation of the work of others. In the early 1960s trainees were taught to improve their lecturing ability by the use of video tape recordings of their presentations. He was generous in his welcome to overseas visiting scientists, particularly young research fellows from Great Britain. These many disciples of Julius Comroe are scattered throughout the world.

Over 25 years the Institute has grown in stature and reputation. It has been responsible for many advances in biomedical research over a wide field, including the respiratory distress syndrome, neonatal intensive care, lipid metabolism, neonatal cardiology and many others. During this time Comroe played an unselfish role in furthering the careers of others.

Towards the end of his career he went back into the laboratory and carried out some extremely elegant experiments on his first love: separating the effects of the aortic and carotid chemo receptors by the introduction of a delay circuit into the cartoid circulation. He had a fierce belief in the value of basic, nongoal oriented research, and when it became fashionable for politicians to interfere in medical research by demanding that this should be more clinically oriented, Julius Comroe characteristically countered this with painstaking investigation into the key steps which had led to the big advances in medical care over the last 20 years. He was able to show how major clinical advances, for example cardiopulmonary bypass, could not have taken place without basic research, which has as a side product produced Heparin and other anticoagulants. In the long run this might prove to be one of his greatest services to physiology. This collection of amusing and informative papers was published in the American Review of Respiratory Diseases, and was later collected into a fascinating book, The Reirospectroscope: insight into medical discovery, Menlo Park, California, Von Gehr Press, 1977.

All this may give the impression of a rather austere character, but Julius Comroe (or Uncle Julius, as he was universally known to his staff) had a tremendous wit and a wry, dry humour. One memorable lecture was on the subject of deans of American medical schools. These were illustrated by slides of dogs, from bulldogs through retrievers to Pekingese and poodles.

He received honorary degrees which included an MD from the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, and election to the National Academy of Sciences. He was awarded the Jesse Stephenson Kovalenko medal of the National Academy, the Eugenie Morelli International Award for pneumonology from the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome, the Ray C Daggs award of the American Physiological Society and the Golden Heart award of the American Heart Association, among many others. He was an honorary member of the Physiological Society of London.

He was survived by his wife Jeanette, the daughter of a pharmacist, whom he married in 1936, and one daughter.

P Sleight
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1984, 289, 842; Lancet, 1984, 2, 532; Times, 31 August 1984]

(Volume VIII, page 105)

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