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Donald Comb, biochemist with a worldwide reach in environmental philanthropy, dies at 93

Dr. Comb raced to preserve genome information of organisms threatened by extinction.
Dr. Comb raced to preserve genome information of organisms threatened by extinction.Dave Comb

Don Comb secured a place in the biochemistry world by founding New England Biolabs, a pioneering company that conducts its own studies and provides research material for scores of scientists nationally and abroad.

Just as far-reaching were a pair of foundations he created. One funds conservation projects around the world. And prompted by environmental losses he had witnessed, Dr. Comb launched an effort to preserve the genome information of rare and critical sea organisms.

“The ocean is so important. This is where evolution occurred,” he told the Globe in 2005. “I’ve seen what’s happened in Bermuda to the reefs. They’re dying. It’s happening all over the world. When a species goes extinct, you lose a lot of information. Someday, I believe, we’ll be able to bring some back.”

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Dr. Comb, whose dedication to science went hand-in-hand with his attempts to preserve key resources, died Oct. 4 in his Gloucester home after a series of strokes. He was 93.

“He always thought big,” said Richard J. Roberts, who is chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs and shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. “He’d get an idea in his head, he’d stick with it, and he’d push it as far as it would go.”

One of those big ideas was founding the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, which is now part of Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant. In an effort to extend the biological diversity of the sea, the nonprofit preserves genetic material from threatened ocean life.

Dr. Comb founded the biorepository project as a hedge against the extinction of sea organisms.

“He was incredibly passionate about science,” said Jim Ellard, who succeeded Dr. Comb as chief executive of New England Biolabs. “And he had courage. I never heard him say ‘dangerous’ or any synonym of dangerous. That just wasn’t in his vocabulary.”

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Dr. Comb founded New England Biolabs, which is now based in Ipswich, in the mid-1970s. According to its website, the company’s scientists conduct research in areas such as enzyme analysis and epigenetics. It also sells recombinant and native enzymes to researchers around the world.

In a 1982 Globe interview, Dr. Comb described the enzymes as “micro-surgical scissors” that are used to cut genes during research.

“Think of the DNA as a long string of beads, a double string,” he said. “These enzymes recognize particular beads and cut into the string at those beads.”

New England Biolabs also began selling restriction enzymes, including some that had yet to find a scientific application. “Our job is to isolate as many of these enzymes as possible and wait for science to find uses for them,” he said in 1982.

Dr. Comb “thought by being a good reagent company, we could effect research far and wide,” Roberts said. “Not just our own research, but research in labs around the world. He had an outsize impact on the whole country’s research in molecular biology.”

Donald G. Comb was born in Detroit in 1927, the second of three brothers. His parents were George Comb, a lawyer, and Margarite Crawford.

Though Dr. Comb grew up in Detroit, he spent summers at a camp in northern Michigan, where he began fishing and studying insects.

“He loved the outdoors. He loved rivers and canoeing,” his son Michael said. “I think that’s what turned him on to life, and to wondering ‘how does it work,’ and what led to his career as a scientist.”

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After graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit with a bachelor’s degree, Dr. Comb received a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Michigan.

Further studies brought him to Boston, his family said, and then he joined the biochemistry faculty at Harvard Medical School.

While there, he spent his summers at the Bermuda Biological Station. “Marine biology was Don’s lifelong love,” his friend Henry Paulus, a former medical school colleague, wrote in a tribute.

By the early 1970s, “having tired of the formalities of academic life,” Dr. Comb left the medical school to launch New England Biolabs, Paulus recalled, adding that his friend “had the brilliant idea for producing enzymes that could cut DNA at specific sites, which sold like hotcakes.”

Among the research units Dr. Comb set up at New England Biolabs was one to study and help find cures for parasitic diseases found in developing countries — the kind of illnesses that don’t hold the promise of enough revenue to attract the attention of pharmaceutical giants.

“It’s become a little more fashionable to talk about neglected diseases,” Ellard said. “We were talking about that in the ’70s and ’80s.”

The company started in Beverly and a little more than 20 years later purchased the Don Bosco estate in Ipswich. New England Biolabs built a headquarters that drew praise for being hospitable to all aspects of employees' professional and personal lives — it includes a day-care center — and for the way it fit its surroundings.

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“Purely as architecture, this is easily the best rural commercial building I’ve ever seen,” Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell wrote in 2005. “More than that, it’s truly rooted in every aspect of the world it finds itself in.”

Art that Dr. Comb had collected enlivened the building’s atrium. He believed in supporting local artists and the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly.

In the early 1980s, he launched the New England Biolabs Foundation, which, according to its website, fosters “community-based conservation of landscapes and seascapes and the bio-cultural diversity found in these places.”

Dr. Comb also founded a nature reserve on St. Barthelemy in the Caribbean.

“He loved wild places and he saw them, in his lifetime, just disappearing,” Michael said. “I think that affected him a lot. Most of his later life was trying to protect biodiversity and protect the wild places he cared so much about.”

Services are private for Dr. Comb, who in addition to his son Michael leaves his wife, Linda, of Gloucester; another son, Dave of Manchester-by-the-Sea; a daughter, Janis of Johnson, Vt.; 12 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and his former wife, Marilyn, of Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Dr. Comb “treated the whole company as his family,” Roberts said.

Many employees stay for years, among them Ellard, who was a summer intern from college at New England Biolabs when he met Dr. Comb and rose to chief executive.

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“It was people and passion over process and profit,” Ellard said of his friend’s approach to running the company. “Don has been an inspiration and a mentor to me for close to four decades now. I cherish every conversation we had.”

To that end, Dr. Comb’s birthday in July is “now going to be an official holiday at Biolabs,” Ellard added. “I’m going to ask the employees to take the day and reflect on Don and his ideas and put into practice their ideas of how to make the world a better place.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.