Double Infection Fighter
With Quiet Resolve, a Scientist Who Changed the World’s Understanding of Cholera Stands Up to Her Field’s Sexism
“We don’t waste fellowships on women.”
It was 1956. Rita Colwell was finishing her degree in bacteriology at Purdue University and hoping to pursue graduate work when a professor with a towering reputation casually suggested that she didn’t have the prerequisite for her intended career: a Y chromosome. This attitude wasn’t much of a surprise; her high school chemistry teacher had refused to write her a letter of recommendation for college entrance, telling her blithely that girls “don’t do chemistry.”
Since then, she had spent most of the next four years as the sole woman in her classes, and once again she wasn’t going to be deterred. “I will damn well prove you wrong,” Colwell thought.
She did. Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor and the first female director of the National Science Foundation, made a tremendous impact on the scientific and medical worlds with her landmark research on cholera. Along the way, she battled rampant sexism in science, suffering the indignities of being a woman in a field dominated by men: the slides of nude women presented at conferences, the time a colleague referred to her as “a little girl,” the professional societies that excluded women from leadership and, therefore, influence over who got make-or-break publication in journals.
In her new memoir, “A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science,” published last month by Simon & Schuster, Colwell tells her own story and those of other female scientists, both well-known and, more often, unheralded, who faced the seemingly immovable force of institutional misogyny—and still do.
“I’ve learned that men always expect women to be quiet,” says Colwell from the book-strewn office of her suburban Maryland home. “They don’t like women who are outspoken or are not popular. I learned that you could behave very demurely but at the same time be working to get done what you needed to get done.”
A career in science wasn’t the first time Colwell faced being unpopular—or worse. Born in 1934 in Beverly, Mass., Rita Rossi was the fifth of Louis and Luisa Rossi’s six surviving children. The Rossis were the first Italian homebuyers in the neighborhood, and not everyone approved.
“It was just at a time when being Italian or being Irish or being Jewish, there was prejudice and you felt it,” says Colwell, who retains the New England accent of her youth. (“Grant,” when she says it, rhymes with “font.”)
At 15, Colwell lost her mother to a heart attack, which she partly attributes to the local doctor’s unfamiliarity with treating cardiac arrest in women. “I vowed to become a research scientist or a medical doctor to give poor and powerless people the care my mother was denied,” she writes in the book.
Encouraged by her father in her academic aspirations, Colwell was accepted at Radcliffe and Smith colleges, but went to Purdue after learning of its emphasis on engineering and science. A full scholarship helped.
Colwell switched her major from chemistry to bacteriology after meeting a professor named Dorothy May Powelson, who put Colwell behind a microscope trained on bacteria, sparking an instant thrill. “You see these little critters swimming around, dashing here, there and everywhere—they stop, then they dart off,” says Colwell. “It just struck me that this is an entire world.”
Another defining encounter came at Purdue when she met a fellow science student named Jack Colwell. She and her then-boyfriend had double dated a few times with his fraternity brother, Jack, and another woman, but quickly it became apparent Jack and Rita were a better couple. They married three months later. (Don, Jack’s fraternity brother and Rita’s former boyfriend, recovered: He served as best man at their wedding.)
Together, the Colwells went west to the University of Washington for their doctorates. Rita was a rarity: In 1950, women earned around 5% of doctoral degrees in chemistry, mathematics and physics. Often, they were steered toward master’s degrees while men were urged into Ph.D. programs, setting up a system in which only men could become high-powered professors. Women with doctorates soon ran into nepotism rules dictating that universities couldn’t employ husbands and wives in the same department; they typically lost out to their husbands, who employers thought were likelier to stick with their careers after having children.
At Washington, Colwell’s Ph.D. adviser gave her “no chance to ask questions or contribute intellectually,” she
writes. She left his lab, and later learned that a previous graduate student had threatened legal action after the same professor pushed her out of her Ph.D. program. Colwell feared no other lab would take her on after a perceived crash and burn in her first placement—she even considered changing course entirely to study 16th- and 17th-century English poetry, following a long-held passion.
Soon, however, Colwell landed in the lab of John Liston in the university’s Department of Fisheries. She became the first student—male or female—to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Washington in the just-blossoming field of marine microbiology.
Cholera had long perplexed scientists. They knew its tremendous costs: Over the course of seven documented outbreaks since 1817, cholera has killed as many as 40 million people, and continues to plague developing countries. Physicians and researchers also knew the disease moves easily from person to person and causes rapid decline—“fine at breakfast, dead at dinner” was one common descriptor—and that poor sanitation contributes to its spread. Indian scientist Sambhu Nath De discovered in 1959 that the bacterium Vibrio cholerae attaches itself to the inside wall of a person’s small intestine, but where the bacterium lived between outbreaks remained a mystery.
Colwell began studying Vibrio cholerae in 1963, when she was working in the biology department of Georgetown University. Over the next two decades, Colwell made several critical discoveries: First, the bacterium thrived in salty or brackish water. Second, it followed the seasonal life cycle of copepods, tiny crustaceans that live in both fresh and saltwater. And third, the bacterium could go dormant and then revive. Put together, Colwell concluded that cholera could live in copepods even if no disease outbreak was evident, and that people could be sickened by drinking untreated water with copepods in it.
In 1972, she accepted a position as professor of microbiology at the University of Maryland. James Kaper, now a professor of microbiology and immunology and associate dean at the UMD School of Medicine in Baltimore, joined Colwell’s lab in 1975 as a graduate student. “She was not the type of mentor that was over your shoulder constantly and telling you exactly how to design your experiments,” he says.
He worked with Colwell collecting samples from the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay and joined her on trips to India and Bangladesh, where, in 1975, she met Anwar Huq, now a professor in UMD’s Maryland Pathogen Institute. Colwell invited Huq to join her lab, and together they created a technique for filtering water through sari cloth—readily available even to poor women in remote villages—folded four to eight times. The method, when used in a field trial, showed a 48% reduction of cases in Bangladesh.
Colwell’s work abroad often followed her home. “She would come home from the airport with luggage full of cultured bacterial plates,” says her daughter, Alison, a botanist in California. “You’d look for milk in the fridge in the morning and there’d be stacks of petri dishes.” (Another daughter, Stacie, is a physician in Halifax, Nova Scotia.)
The scientific community was slow to embrace Colwell’s new views on cholera, which she believes was in part a covert dismissal of a woman’s work. “The way you’re talking, it looks like vibrios are even in your backyard,” one colleague sneered when Colwell presented her findings at a conference. “I haven’t checked there yet,” she retorted.
Today, Colwell’s findings are widely accepted, and in recent years, she’s been exploring new terrain in the cholera landscape: computer models that can predict outbreaks weeks ahead of time.
Colwell’s standard-setting work on cholera opened doors for her to change not just her own laboratory by bringing on female graduate students, but scientific institutions as well. She became president of the American Society for Microbiology—only the fourth woman to hold the position since its 1899 founding—in 1983, and the first female director of the National Science Foundation in 1998. Both gave her the opportunity to redefine women’s roles in science.
“Rita was really a trailblazer for us younger women,” says Tamar Barkay Ph.D. ’80, professor of biochemistry and microbiology at Rutgers University and a former student of Colwell’s. Barkay recalls that Colwell’s office was lined with photos from conferences where she was the sole woman. “She opened a path that many of us could follow. She always knew how to move things forward.”
Moving things forward Colwell-style has often meant working within the system instead of pushing for radical, all-at-once change. As president of ASM, she figured out how to use the voting system to get more women elected president—and therefore in positions of power over the journals critical to success in science. In the years following Colwell’s tenure, women’s presence as editors and peer reviewers expanded. She also created funds for women—as well as African American and Latinx scientists—to attend conferences, where she ensured child care was available.
Inequities still abound for women in science. A 1996 Massachusetts Institute of Technology self-report found that female science faculty had lingered at about 8% for some 20 years; that climbed to 19.2% in 2014, but has since stalled. Why? Colwell points to a tendency to “fall back into bad habits” and to a predisposition to believe that “if you have the Y chromosome, you’re smart,” she says. “Well, the Y chromosome doesn’t carry intelligence genes.”