Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Rita R. Colwell, Ph.D. (1934-     )
MSA SC 3520-11592


Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell's work in the field of marine microbiology and biotechnology has helped save millions of lives. Particularly, her study of the cholera bacteria, and subsequent findings, has aided researchers in predicting cholera epidemics worldwide as well as preventing it in developed and developing countries. Her leadership has helped promote the importance of science and math education, and paints a picture of a woman dedicated to her work and life. As a teacher, mother, and leader in the scientific community, Colwell has inspired people from across the world to take an active interest in science and all the benefits it can and does produce for society.

Rita Rossi was born November 23, 1934, in Massachusetts, the seventh of eight children to Louis and Louise Rossi.1 Her father was an Italian immigrant who founded his own construction company, and her mother had an artistic background.2 When Colwell was in sixth grade, she scored higher than any student in her school's history.3 Her principal sat her down after the test and asked her if she understood that she had a responsibility to go to college; Colwell replied, "Yes, ma'am."4 Colwell would eventually receive a full scholarship to Perdue University in Indiana.5

Colwell earned her B.S. in Bacteriology from Perdue in 1956, and remained there for her master's.6 While studying for her bachelor's degree, Colwell could not help but feel distanced from many of the women at school. As a science major in the 1950s, Colwell was going against the mold for what was considered women's proper education. She remarked, "It felt very peculiar wanting to be a scientist when everyone around me majored in home economics."7 Yet, Colwell's perseverance prevailed, and she would rise to become one of the most well-known and authoritative scientists in her field.

Initially intending to pursue a medical degree, Colwell's plan changed when she met and then married Jack Colwell after a whirlwind romance in 1956, the same year she received her undergraduate degree.8 Colwell recollects the experience with clarity, stating that, " the last semester of my senior year, I met this handsome 6 foot 2 physical chemistry graduate student, Jack Colwell, and after one date, we decided to get married."9 Colwell then decided to remain at Perdue for her master's, thinking that she would continue down the bacteriology tract. She went to the head of the bacteriology department and asked him about applying for a fellowship in the program. He replied, "We don't waste fellowships on women."10

Angered at such a response, Colwell appealed to her faculty advisor, a professor in the genetics program at Perdue. His response was simple: "Okay, their loss is our gain. Would you like a fellowship to study genetics?"11 Thus began Colwell's foundation for her prestigious career in microbiology. After earning her M.S. in genetics, Colwell continued on to the University of Washington for her Ph.D. in Oceanography.12 She received her doctorate for her work studying bacteria in marine animals that feeds or benefits from the animal without harming or helping it in 1961.13

Now looking for postdoctoral work, Colwell would again encounter barriers because of her sex. In 1961, the Canadian National Research Council (CNRC) in Ottawa awarded her husband, Jack, a fellowship.14 Hoping to find work near him, Colwell applied for a fellowship at the CNRC, only to be rejected due to a policy that disallowed the Council from offering fellowships to spouses.15 Fortunately, Colwell was able to find research funding through the National Science Foundation, an organization that she would later head, and was also able to obtain laboratory space in Ottawa.16

After her brief stint in Canada, Colwell came to Georgetown University in 1964 as an associate professor, and she gained tenure there in 1966.17 During her time at Georgetown, Colwell and her research team were the first to learn that the bacterium that causes cholera was found naturally in the areas around the Chesapeake Bay.18 By 1972, Colwell accepted a tenured professorship at the University of Maryland.19 She has remained with the University of Maryland ever since her appointment to this position.

It was at the University of Maryland that Colwell's career blossomed. In 1977, she was named director of University of Maryland's Sea Grant Program, the first woman to be appointed director in the National Sea Grant's Program.20 As director, she supervised various research programs on the Chesapeake Bay. Through her involvement in the Sea Grant Program, as well as her own research, Colwell discovered that in areas where oil spills occur, there is an unusually high level of bacteria that degrades oil.21 She posited that it may one day be possible to use this bacteria to clean up oil spills. Colwell also discovered that oyster larvae were attracted to a bacterial film that grew on surfaces underwater.22 This significant find could help scientists replenish the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay, which has been steadily declining for years. Moreover, she also has studied the bacteria vibrio in the Chesapeake Bay region for the last four decades: this bacteria  can cause vomiting, fever, headaches, lesions, and even death, although there are relatively few reported cases of infection in the area.23

Colwell continued her upward climb at the University of Maryland. In 1983, she was appointed Chief Academic Officer of Maryland's five-campus system.24 At this time she also thought of establishing a marine biotechnology center, and in 1985, was able to open the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute (UMBI), which she headed until the mid-1990s.25 The purpose of UMBI was to fund basic research, the study of science for the sake of science, with the intent of selling their discoveries to private biotechnology companies to be used in practical applications.26 During her time at the University of Maryland, Colwell was also Vice President of Academic Affairs.27 In addition, Colwell was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the National Science Board, the policy-making body of the National Science Foundation, in 1984; she was a member until 1990.28 And, in 1988, Colwell was one of the first women to join the Cosmos Club, an elite society of powerful Washington intellectuals.29

Colwell's most well-known contribution to science is her work on the cholera bacterium, for which she made vital discoveries. Colwell discovered that cholera exists in a dormant form that was previously not thought to exist.30 It was believed that if bacteria were not growing then they were dead.31 Colwell showed that, if conditions are unsavory, many bacteria will enter a dormant state.32 Colwell also demonstrated that seasonal outbreaks of cholera, especially in areas such as Bangladesh, are linked to weather patterns.33 An excess level of nutrients combined with warmer ocean waters causes large algal blooms, which in turn causes an increase in the zooplankton population, the microscopic organisms that carry the cholera bacteria. Dr. Colwell not only discovered this link between climate change and cholera outbreaks, she also discovered a way to cut the number of cholera cases in half.34 By using folded sari cloth, inexpensive cloth that women in Bangladesh use to make clothes, as a filter in drinking water, the number of people infected with cholera was severely reduced.35

In the middle of the 1990s Colwell was one of the major forces behind the ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful Columbus Center in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, an interactive education and research center aimed at making marine sciences more accessible and understandable to the general public.36 The failure of the Columbus Center, however, was foreshadowed by Colwell's appointment as director of the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that funds basic research.37 Colwell was the first woman to become the director of the NSF, and the first biologist to hold the position within the last twenty-five years.38 She headed the Foundation from 1998 until 2004.39

As director of the National Science Foundation, Colwell guided what type of research was funded, as well as managed the United States Antarctic Research Project.40 One of her major goals as director was to increase education in American students in grades K-12. Specifically, Colwell started an experimental program in which graduate students in math, science, and engineering were given paid teaching assistantships to help educate students.41 Colwell aimed at placing America in the top tier for math and science education, stating that, "You would like to see the U.S. a leader not just in research and Nobel Prizes, but in how little kids perform."42

In recent years, Dr. Colwell has returned to teaching at the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, and acted as Chairman of Canon U.S. Life Sciences, Incorporated.43,44 She and her husband, Jack, raised two daughters together, both of which followed in their parents' footsteps with careers in science. Colwell has been awarded 30+ honorary degrees, written and co-written numerous books and articles, and has served as the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society of Microbiology.45 She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences.46 A geological site in Antarctica, Colwell Mastiff, has been named after her, and in 2010 Colwell was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize, an award that goes to those who have achieved outstanding accomplishments in the conservation and protection of water resources.47,48 She also received the National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush in 2006 for her work in studying oceans, climate, and human health.49

The list of awards, organizations, and accolades that Rita Colwell has been involved with and received continues on almost endlessly. She was faced with discriminatory obstacles throughout her education and career, yet she overcame them to become one of the most accomplished and active scientists of her time. She is a prime example of how determination and a love of learning can push you to succeed to heights you may have never imagined. Rita Colwell is a bright and unwavering star in the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, and her contributions to women, society, and science will be felt in the years to come.

Written by Archival Intern Emily J. Steedman, B.A. History, A.A. Liberal Arts & Sciences

1. "Rita R. Colwell Biography,", (Accessed July 7, 2011). Return to text
2. Ibid. Return to text
3. Ibid. Return to text
4. Ibid. Return to text
5. Ibid. Return to text
6. Ibid. Return to text
7. Claudia Dreifus, "Always, Always, Going Against the Norm," New York Times, February 16, 1999, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
8. Ibid. Return to text
9. Ibid. Return to text
10. Ibid. Return to text
11. Ibid. Return to text
12. "Dr. Rita Colwell," University of Maryland, (Accessed July 7, 2011). Return to text
13. "Rita R. Colwell Biography," Return to text
14. Claudia Dreifus, "Always, Always, Going Against the Norm." Return to text
15. Ibid. Return to text
16. Ibid. Return to text
17. "Rita R. Colwell Biography," Return to text
18. Ibid. Return to text
19. Ibid. Return to text
20. "Rita R. Colwell: Sea Grant Director," Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1977, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
21. Bart Barnes, "Probing Unseen Worlds in the Rich Depths of the Chesapeake Bay," Washington Post, October 25, 1979, ProQuest Historical Newspapers,
    Return to text
22. "Rita R. Colwell Biography," Return to text
23. Jeff Newman, "Bacteria in bay cause skin and blood infections, intestinal illness," Washington Post, August 26, 2010, Every Edition, Lexis Research
    System. Return to text
24. Rick Holter, "Woman Named Academic Vice President of U-Md.," Washington Post, May 5, 1983, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
25. David Folkenflik, "Colwell's job searches unsettle UM officials; She maintains she has 'deep and loyal affection for the state of Maryland,'" Baltimore Sun,
    November 5, 1995, Final Edition, Lexis Research System. Return to text
26. Kristin Hussey, "Local scientist tapped to head biotech institute," The Capital (Annapolis), August 23, 1998, Lexis Research System. Return to text
27. Karen Riley, "Prophecy fulfilled; Biotechnology boom continues for Maryland," Washington Times, May 27, 1995, Final Edition, Lexis Research System.
    Return to text
28. Albert Sehlstedt, "National science board nominee has 'zest for life,'" Baltimore Sun, September 23, 1984, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
29. Retha Hill, "Demystifying Science: Microbiologist Spreads Her Gospel," Washington Post, February 10, 1994, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
    Return to text
30. Paul R. Epstein, "Link With Cholera," New York Times, March 10, 1992, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
31. Philip Cohen, "Scientist tries new test for bacteria; UM microbiologist reasons that nutrients are a key growth factor," Baltimore Sun, September 21, 1997,
    Arundel Edition, Lexis Research System. Return to text
32. Diana K. Sugg, "Scientists warned of possibility of plagues; Infectious diseases on rise despite use of antibiotics," Baltimore Sun, February 11, 1996, Final
    Edition, Lexis Research System. Return to text
33. Ibid. Return to text
34. "Old Sari Cloth Filters Cholera, Study Finds," New York Times, January 14, 2003, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
35. Ibid. Return to text
36. Paul W. Valentine, "A Wider Sea Of Discovery; New Hall at Marine Center," Washington Post, May 15, 1997, Final Edition, Lexis Research System.
    Return to text
37. Joyce Howard Price, "Even NSF's allies concede many projects are waste," Washington Times, August 8, 1999, Final Edition, Lexis Research System.
    Return to text
38. Curt Suplee, "NSF Chief Cuts A Fresh Course; Crossing Disciplines Comes Naturally," Washington Post, September 1, 1998, Final Edition, Lexis
    Research System. Return to text
39. Cornelia Dean, "At a Scientific Gathering, U.S. Policies Are Lamented," New York Times, February 19, 2006. Return to text
40. Joyce Howard Price, "Even NSF's allies concede many projects are waste." Return to text
41. Sam Hooper Samuels, "BLACKBOARD: Where Graduate Students Seldom Go-Grade School," New York Times, November 11, 2001, ProQuest
    Historical Newspapers. Return to text
42. Diana Jean Schemo, "Worldwide Survey Finds U.S. Students Are Not Keeping Up," New York Times, December 6, 2000, ProQuest Historical
    Newspapers. Return to text
43. "Stockholm Water Prize 2010," City of Stockholm, http://international/ (Accessed July 7,
    2011). Return to text
44. "Dr. Rita R. Colwell," University of Maryland, (Accessed July 7, 2011). Return to text
45. "Rita R. Colwell Profile," Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health,
    (Accessed July 7, 2011). Return to text
46. Ibid. Return to text
47. Ibid. Return to text
48. "2010 Stockholm Water Prize," Stockholm International Water Institute, (Accessed July 7, 2011). Return to text
49. "National Science Medal Winners," Washington Post, August 2, 2007, Every Edition, Lexis Research System. Return to text

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