Public Health Champion Dr Rita Colwell Receives 2010 Stockholm Water Prize


Dr Rita Colwell, distinguished Professor from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States, has been named the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate.


Dr Rita Colwell Photograph by John T. Consoli/University of Maryland

Dr Rita Colwell, distinguished Professor from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States, has been named the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate. Dr Colwell’s pioneering research on the prevention of waterborne infectious diseases has helped protect the health and lives of millions.

Dr Colwell, 76, is widely recognized as one of this century’s most influential voices in science, technology, and policy associated with water and health. She has made exceptional contributions to control the spread of cholera, a waterborne pathogen that infects 3 to 5 million people and leads to an estimated 120,000 deaths each year. Through her groundbreaking research, innovations and decades of scientific leadership, she has defined our current understanding of the ecology of infectious diseases and developed the use of advanced technologies to halt their spread. Her work has established the basis for environmental and infectious disease risk assessment used around the world.  

"Dr Rita Colwell’s numerous seminal contributions towards solving the world’s water and water-related public health problems, particularly her work to prevent the spread of cholera, is of utmost global importance," noted the Stockholm Water Prize Nominating Committee in its citation. "Through her research on its physiology, ecology, and metabolism, Dr Colwell advanced the fields of mathematics, genetics and remote sensing technology and not only as they relate to these bacteria but to the prevention other diseases in many developing countries."

A Lifelong Career Fighting Cholera

In the 1960’s, Dr Colwell observed that the causative agent for cholera, Vibrio cholera, could survive by attaching to zooplankton. This led to her groundbreaking discovery that certain bacteria, including the Vibrio species, can enter a dormant stage that could revert to an infectious state under the proper conditions. This means that even when there are no disease outbreaks, rivers, lakes and oceans can serve as reservoirs for these bacteria.

These findings counteracted the conventional wisdom held that cholera was only spread from person to person, food or drinking water and that its presence in the environment could only be due to the release of sewage. As a result of her work, scientists are now able to link changes in the natural environment to the spread of disease.

Defining the New Climate for Disease Prevention

Dr Colwell has shown how changes in climate, adverse weather events, shifts in ocean circulation and other ecological processes can create conditions that allow infectious diseases to spread, and through that link she has led the ability to craft preemptive policies to minimize outbreaks.

Her research in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, for example, demonstrated that warmer surface ocean temperatures have stimulated the growth of cholera-hosting zooplankton and directly led to an increase in the number of cholera cases.

In the United States she was the first to lead research experiments on the impact of El Niño on human health and the aquatic environment. In the 1990s, Dr Colwell was the first scientist to research the impacts of climate change on the spread of infectious diseases. She serves on dozens of international panels, including the Global Health Assembly, and as a top government public health advisor on adaptation strategies to climate change.

Saving Lives with Low-Cost and High-Tech Innovations

Throughout her career, Dr Colwell has bridged the forefront of science and technology with a lifelong dedication to craft practical solutions to provide access to clean drinking water and protect human and ecosystem health. She has helped create and lead the study of bioinformatics, a field that combines biology, computer science and information technology and has exponentially advanced the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of many genetic diseases.

 She has also led the adoption of remote sensing technology to track the movement of diseases globally. Dr Colwell developed the first model that applied remote satellite imaging to track and predict outbreaks of cholera before they occur. This model has become the archetype for infectious disease monitoring and prevention used around the world.

A Lifetime of Scientific Leadership

Dr Colwell was born in Beverly, Massachusetts, in the United States in 1934. She has authored or co-authored 17 books and more than 700 scientific publications. Over the years, Dr Colwell has worked extensively to spread community-based water safety education and viable, low-cost technological innovations in communities throughout South Asia and in Africa. During the cholera pandemic in Latin and South America in the 1990s, Dr Colwell’s worked as national advisor to multiple governments. In Ecuador, her discovery of the presence of Vibrio cholerae in the hospitals and in the shrimp industry saved countless lives. In Peru, she was honored by the national government for her work to develop of drinking water criteria that helped guide policies to curb the spread of the disease.

Dr Colwell has held many advisory positions in the U.S. government, in non-profit science-policy organizations, within private foundations, in the international scientific research community. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton as the first woman to serve as Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1998 to 2004. In 2000, she was inducted into the United States National Academy of Sciences. A passionate educator, some of her major interests include primary and high school science and mathematics education, graduate science and engineering education, and the increased participation of women and minorities in science and engineering.

About the Stockholm Water Prize

H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, who is the patron of the Prize, will formally present Dr Colwell with the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize at a Royal Award Ceremony in Stockholm City Hall on September 9 during the 2010 World Water Week in Stockholm. The Stockholm Water Prize is a global award founded in 1990 and presented annually by the Stockholm International Water Institute to an individual, organization or institution for outstanding water-related activities.

Stockholm Water Prize sculpture. Photograph courtesy of SIWI

The Stockholm Water Prize Laureate receives USD 150,000 and a crystal sculpture specially designed and created by Orrefors. 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm Water Prize and the World Water Week in Stockholm.

Founders of the Stockholm Water Prize are Swedish and international companies in cooperation with the City of Stockholm. They are: Bacardi, Borealis & Borouge, DuPont, Europeiska Insurance, Fujitsu, General Motors, Grundfos Management, Hewlett Packard, ITT Water & Wastewater, Kemira Water, KPMG Sweden, Läckeby Water, P&G, Ragn-Sells, Scandic, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), Siemens AG, SJ (Swedish Railways), Snecma, Uponor, Water Environment Federation and Ålandsbanken Sverige.

 This news is from the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), August 15, 2010.


Dr Rita Colwell is a member of the Horizon International Scientific Review Board and one of the contributing authors of the forthcoming publication: “Water and Sanitation Related Diseases and the Environment: Challenges, Interventions and Preventive Measures,”  a John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Horizon International book and DVD.


 Forthcoming Publication:

 “Water and Sanitation Related Diseases and the Environment: Challenges, Interventions and Preventive Measures,” 

a John Wiley & Sons, Inc. - Horizon International Publication, will soon be available. 


The print copy of the book will be accompanied by a multimedia DVD.


Special Web sites established by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. and by the Horizon Solutions Site at will present the electronic version of the book, the DVD and other Supplementary Material. 

Written by authorities from the fields of public health, medicine, epidemiology, environmental health, climate change, environmental engineering, and population research, this book presents an interdisciplinary picture of the conditions responsible for water and sanitation-related diseases, the pathogens and their biology, morbidity and mortality resulting from lack of safe water and sanitation, distribution of these diseases and the conditions that must be met to reduce or eradicate them.

The publication covers access to and maintenance of clean water, and guidelines for the safe use of wastewater, excreta and greywater and examples of solutions, but with an emphasis on what is achievable considering that 2.6 billion individuals have no toilet and 1.2 billion people are exposed to water-related illness from their drinking water.

Meeting water and sanitation needs coupled with protection of the environment and prevention of pollutants is essential to every effort to improve the health and living conditions of billions of people.  Meeting these needs is fundamental not only to effectively diminish incidence of diseases that afflict a third or more of the people of the world, but also to improve education and economic well-being and elevate billions of individuals out of vicious cycles of poverty.

Preventive measures and solutions provide guidance for possible action on the local, national and international levels.

Watch for announcements of the publication date and availability.


A SIWI interview with Dr Colwell produced by SIWI.

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