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Colwell, Rita R., 1934-



  • Existence: November 23, 1934-

Biographical Information

Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell is a microbiologist, founder of CosmosID, and a distinguished professor at both the University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

She was born in Beverly, Massachusetts to Louis and Louise Rossi and was the seventh of eight children. Colwell earned her Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Bacteriology in 1956 and Master of Science (M.S) in Genetics from Purdue University. Colwell moved on to the University of Washington as a research assistant in 1957 where in 1961 she earned her doctorate (Ph.D.) in Oceanography.

Colwell stayed at the University of Washington as an assistant professor, followed by some brief work with the Canadian National Research Council (CNRC). In 1964, she became an associate professor at Georgetown University and in 1966 she secured tenure. Colwell accepted a tenured professorship at the University of Maryland in 1972 where she later served as the president of the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute. From 1998-2004, Colwell was the director for the National Science Foundation, becoming the first woman and first biological scientist to head the federal agency. In 2008, she founded the company CosmosID. She has also served on numerous science-related boards and associations and belongs to many national and international science academies.

Colwell is well known for her work in microbiology, ecology, infectious disease, public health, and computer and satellite technology and she is one of the world's leading experts on cholera. In the 1960's, she became the first researcher in the United States to develop a computer program to analyze bacteriological data and, during her tenure at Georgetown, was the first to discover that the bacterium that causes cholera naturally occurred in the areas around Chesapeake Bay.

Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell has received 55 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education, including an Alma Mater from Purdue University, Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star bestowed by the Emperor of Japan, 2006 National Medal of Science of the United States, 2010 Stockholm Water Prize, and 2017 Vannevar Bush Award. There is also a geological site in Antarctica, "Colwell Massif", that has been named in recognition of her work in polar regions.


Biography: Rita R.Colwell. (n.d.). National Science Foundation. Retrieved from:


Dreifus, C. (February 16, 1999). A conversation with: Rital Colwell; 'Always, always, going against the norm'. The New York Times. Retrieved from:


News Release: Rita Colwell, world-renowned microbiologist and science leader, to receive the Vannevar Bush Award. (April 26, 2017). National Science Foundation. Retrieved from:


Rita Colwell: You can call her, "Dr. Science". (March 1999). Columns: The University of Washington Alumni Magazine. Retrieved from:


Steedman, E. (n.d.). Rita R. Colwell, Ph.D. (1934-). Archives of Maryland. Retrieved from:


MSO 1, Purdue University Archives and Special Collections Oral History Program collection, Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Rita Colwell papers, addition 05

 Unprocessed — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 20190903