Donald G. Comb

Dr. Donald G. Comb, a passionate scientist, environmentalist and visionary best known for developing recombinant DNA tools that revolutionized the field of molecular biology and founder of New England Biolabs, has died peacefully at his home in Gloucester, surrounded by family on October 4th at age 93.  

Don Comb was many things – but normal or ordinary he was not.

Born in 1927, he grew up in Detroit, MI, the second of three boys, to a mother who was social and outgoing and a father who was a successful lawyer.

As a child Don spent summers in northern MI, where he was introduced to the outdoors and to Michigan’s great trout rivers.  He loved to fish and was fascinated by insects and their life cycles.  Later, in graduate school at the University of Michigan, he would spend time at the university’s biological station learning entomology and collecting insects. 

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a PhD in Biochemistry, Don started a family and accepted a faculty position at Harvard Medical School in the Biochemistry Department, where he worked on the function of sugars and small RNAs.  He spent summers at the Bermuda Biological Station collecting sea urchins and studying their early development.

After leaving Harvard, Don established New England Biolabs (NEB) as a cooperative of scientists dedicated to providing research tools for molecular biologists.  NEB was one of the first companies to commercialize restriction enzymes, which cleave DNA at specific sequences and are essential tools for recombinant DNA technology.  Don’s principles of prioritizing people and passion over process and profit and supplying high quality reagents at a fair price advanced the field of molecular biology and built a world-class reputation for NEB as a leader in life science research tools.

His vision of a company that used commercial revenue to fund its own basic research was unprecedented at the time.  Basic and applied research functions were established to support and complement one another; and to this day, NEB maintains an active research program that has published over 1,300 scientific publications. 

At NEB, Don established a parasitology research group to study and help cure parasitic diseases that were found in developing countries and were often overlooked by large pharmaceutical companies.  This work continues to this day.

Early on, Don recognized that the planet was being abused by reckless development and big industry polluters.  He sought to change that by supporting environmental education and helping to build awareness of the environmental crisis.  He became an early member of the Sierra Club and supported the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Conservation Law Foundation.  In Saint Barthelemy, Don observed that the reefs surrounding the island had been over fished.  To address this, he founded a marine sanctuary, one of the first of its kind in the Caribbean.  He was also involved in protecting the West Branch of the Penobscot River in northern Maine.  He helped establish the Ocean Genome Legacy, a nonprofit marine research facility dedicated to exploring and preserving the threatened biological diversity of the sea.

Don created the NEB Foundation to support and fund communities and environmental activists in developing countries.  By providing small grants to organizations and communities in biodiversity-rich areas he helped empower the work they were already doing fighting to preserve their land, livelihoods and the biodiversity he cared so deeply about.  He supported many environmental groups and was also an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, especially local artists and the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly.

Don loved exploring the planet, having outdoor adventures and taking risks. He enjoyed fishing, and this became a passion in his life, fishing in the ocean for jacks and tuna and in rivers for trout and salmon.  He especially enjoyed being alongside a trout stream during a massive caddis fly hatch, and he later became alarmed that these insects were disappearing.

He loved to sail and had many adventures teaching himself, his children and grandkids how to sail and navigate, first in New England and then in the warmer waters of the Caribbean.  He cherished time spent in the forest identifying and collecting mushrooms, and he also enjoyed playing poker and bridge with his family and friends.  His passion for life and his booming, uninhibited laugh would bring life to any room.

Don was everything except normal.  He was an outlier—his curiosity for how life works, his fairness and respect for others, and his generosity to his employees, the community, and the environment made him a true visionary and a natural leader.

Don taught us to embrace life to the fullest and be humbled and fascinated by its many mysteries, to take risks and never miss a chance for an adventure in life, love or business.

He is survived by his loving wife Linda Comb; his three children, Michael, Dave (Coleen) and Janis Comb; and his grandchildren Jovial King and Benjamin, Christopher, Matthew, Dylan, and Tristan Comb; Linda Comb’s six grandchildren; his great-grandchildren Bodhi and Sky Kamitses, and Arrow and Lyla Comb; his former daughter-in-law Lynne Comb; and his former wife, Marilyn Comb.

In lieu of flowers donations can be made to the Ocean Genome Legacy.