Julius Hiram Comroe Jr., Physiology: San Francisco

Morris Hertzstein Professor of Biology, Emeritus

Julius Comroe was born in York, Pennsylvania, the second son of a primary physician and a mother who was a schoolteacher. In 1931 he received his A.B. from the University of Pennsylvania, entered medical school there, and obtained his M.D. in 1934. In 1936 he joined the Department of Pharmacology as an instructor. His interest in the mechanisms and control of breathing resulted in seminal work with Carl Schmidt on the carotid and aortic chemoreceptors and their role in regulating breathing. A brilliant researcher and administrator, he was appointed at the age of 35 years as professor and chairman of the newly formed Department of Physiology and Pharmacology in the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Under his guidance the department achieved an international reputation in the field of respiratory physiology.

While building up his department, he continued to work on the regulation of breathing, investigating the reflex control of rate and depth of breathing during exercise, the effects of various drugs on breathing, and the effects of breathing oxygen on the cardiovascular system. With his colleague Robert Dripps of the Department of Anesthesia, he demonstrated the inefficiency of the method of manual artificial respiration in use at that time, and set the stage for the physiological studies that culminated in the widespread use of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

His interest in basic science was paralleled by his belief that physiology is the handmaiden of clinical medicine, and he and his colleagues developed instruments and methods that could be used simply and effectively in evaluating respiratory performance in health and disease. In fact, many modern pulmonary function tests are based on the work done in his department in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1957 Julius Comroe came to the University of California at San Francisco to head the newly formed Cardiovascular Research Institute. As

director of the Institute and professor of physiology, he continued to do research on pulmonary function, but he devoted most of his time to developing an internationally famous training program for postdoctoral students in medicine and physiology. He emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of science, and the Institute included in its program research in fields as diverse as histology, muscle biochemistry, anesthesia, renal function, neuroanatomy, lipoprotein biochemistry, and developmental biology. He recruited an outstanding faculty, raised funds to support an expanding research and training program, and established an atmosphere of scholarship that helped to change the face of the San Francisco campus. A formidable advocate, he opposed entrenched and conservative ideas, and championed the importance of research in clinical departments. He helped to improve the academic stature of UCSF, attract new departmental chairmen, and facilitate the emergence of UCSF as a major biosciences center.

He made important contributions to the growth of physiological sciences and medical education, both in California and throughout the United States. One of his significant insights was the notion of attracting bright young surgeons to spend one or more years doing basic research, thereby helping to promote the rapid advance of academic surgery.

His lecturing technique was superb, and he successfully conducted courses in the Art of Lecturing that were capable of turning even the worst tyros into competent speakers, though few ever achieved his standards. His writing was on a par with his lecturing, and it combined clarity of thought and expression with a deceptive simplicity of style. His books, The Lung (1955, 1962) and Physiology of Respiration (1965, 1974), are classics. He also developed the series Physiology for Physicians (which he edited for three years) that helped to promote basic physiology as a major part of the education of a doctor. For five years (1966-1970) he edited Circulation Research, the leading journal of basic cardiovascular research.

While director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute, Julius Comroe had a nationwide influence on biomedical research through his service on the National Advisory Heart Council (1963-1967) and again when it became the National Heart and Lung Advisory Council (1970-1974). He was also a member of the Board of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (1967-1970) and was later on the Executive Committee of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, he played an important part in the expansion of the National Heart Institute into the National Heart and Lung Institute and also in the formation of the Institute of Medicine. He was a member of the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Institutes of Health, and a member of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1973 Julius Comroe retired as director of the Cardiovascular Research

Institute and was appointed Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology at UCSF. He turned his attention to evaluating the idea, pushed by the Department of Defense and by President Johnson, that goal-oriented contract research is more productive than basic, undirected research. With his former colleague, Robert Dripps, he set out to collect objective data on how the major clinical advances in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases had come about. Among these were cardiopulmonary bypass, drug treatment of hypertension, and the development of intensive care units. These studies, published in 1976, showed that at a conservative estimate 40% of all advances responsible for these clinical successes were the result of basic investigations, the practical applications of which were not predicted. Comroe continued to explore the history of medical research and the lessons to be learned from it, and many of his conclusions were published in his immensely popular column “Retrospectroscope” in the American Review of Respiratory Diseases while he was an associate editor (1973-1979) and in his last book, Exploring the Heart, published in 1983.

Julius Comroe's contribution to education and research were recognized by many honorary degrees, awards, and honors. These included an honorary M.D. from the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm; honorary fellowships of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Royal College of Physicians of London, and of the American College of Cardiology and the American College of Physicians; honorary membership in the Physiological Society of London; and membership in the National Academy of Sciences (USA), the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Physiological Society of which he was president, 1960-1961. He received the Research Achievement Award of the American Heart Association in 1968, the Trudeau Medal of the American Lung Association in 1974, the Gold Heart Award of the American Heart Association in 1975, the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1976, the American College of Physicians Award in 1977, the Ray C. Daggs Award of the American Physiological Society in 1977, and the Eugenio Morelli International Award for Pneumology of L'Academia Dei Lincei in 1979.

Despite his eminence, Julius Comroe was always considerate of his associates and students. Soon after he came to San Francisco, he realized that the spouses of new trainees and fellows who had recently moved to the Cardiovascular Research Institute were often painfully isolated in their environment. To help them, he made a point at the beginning of each academic year of having a large party at his home to which the families were invited; at these gatherings introductions and friendships were made that eased the transition for many families. In this and countless other ways, he showed his commitment to people as well as to science, and was repaid with the love and admiration of all who knew him well.


He is survived by his wife, Jeanette; his daughter, Joan; two grandchildren; and his sister, Joan Rosenbaum.

J.A. Clements R.J. Havel J.I.E. Hoffman J.F. Murray J.A. Nadel A.M. Rudolph N.C. Staub