Nathaniel Comfort, PhD

Nathaniel Comfort, PhDProfessor

Institute of the History of Medicine
The Johns Hopkins University
1900 East Monument Street
Baltimore, MD 21205

Phone: 443-287-6146

Research Interests
History of biology, especially genetics, molecular biology and biomedicine; history of recent science; oral history and interviewing.

I am interested in heredity and health in twentieth century America. My recent book project examined the growth and evolution of medical genetics from the early days of Mendelism to the Human Genome Project. In it, I show 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. I strenuously avoid 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.

Recent publications

The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2012.

(ed.) The Panda’s Black Box: Opening Up the Intelligent Design Controversy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

"A Twisted Answer to Life and the Universe" In Hidden Treasure: 175 Years of the National Library of Medicine, edited by Mike Sappol. Bethesda, MD: National Library of Medicine (2012): 218.

"When Your Sources Talk Back: Toward a Multimodal Approach to Scientific Biography." Journal of the History of Biology 44 (2011): 651-59. doi:DOI 10.1007/s10739-011-9273-9.

"The Prisoner as Model Organism: Malaria Research at Stateville Penitentiary." Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. C: Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. Biomed. Sci. 40 (2009): 190-203 (

"Cultural Darwinism." The European Legacy 13, no. 5 (2008): 623-37. doi:10.1080/10848770802268816 (

"'Polyhybrid heterogeneous bastards': promoting medical genetics in America in the 1930s and 1940s." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 61, no. 4 (2006): 415-55 (

"Zelig (recent biographies of Francis Galton)." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80, no. 2 (2006): 348-63 (

"Barbara McClintock's controlling elements: premature discovery or stillborn theory?," In Ernest B. Hook, Ed. Prematurity in Scientific Discovery (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 175-199.

"'The real point is control': The reception of Barbara McClintock's controlling elements," Journal of the History of Biology 32 (1999): 133-162 (

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

Wider Audience:
"Reptile: Galapagos tortoise." The Believer 2, no. 3 (2004): 42-43.

"Suddenly you know the answer," Natural History Oct. 2001 (2001): 90.

"Are genes real?," Natural History June 2001 (2001): 28-38.

"The stuff of life," New York Times Book Review ( 9 Sept., 2001): 22.

Commentary on the 50th anniversary of the double helix, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 28 February 2003.