Edward ‘Ed’ John Bouwer, Johns Hopkins professor and water contamination expert, dies

Dr. Edward “Ed” John Bouwer died of multiple myeloma Wednesday at Stella Maris, less than two weeks after attending the doctoral defense of one of his students. The water contamination expert and longtime Johns Hopkins University professor was 63.

During his career, Dr. Bouwer researched topics such as the risk of dry cleaning solvents in water and chromium levels at Baltimore’s Harbor Point. His work and leadership helped reinvigorate the environmental engineering department at the Johns Hopkins University after a period in which engineering took a back seat to other disciplines, said Dr. Alan Stone, a colleague.


Born Dec. 5, 1955, in Auburn, Alabama, to Dutch-born parents Herman Bouwer, a hydrologist and agricultural engineer, and Agnes Nancy Bouwer, a homemaker, Dr. Bouwer was the oldest of three children. He grew up mostly in Tempe, Arizona, where he became co-valedictorian of his high school class. After graduating from Tempe High School in 1973, Dr. Bouwer studied civil engineering at Arizona State University with a minor in nuclear engineering.

During an internship at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, he met Patricia Gilpatrick after being introduced by her father, who also worked at the lab. Their first date was on a tennis court; two years later, they married.


In January 1978, Dr. Bouwer headed to Stanford University, where he pursued his master’s and then doctoral degrees in environmental engineering. He arrived in California at a time when the school was at the forefront of a movement to use new technologies to explore contaminated groundwater, Dr. Stone said. Members of the public wanted to know whether substances such as gasoline and solvents were polluting their drinking water, and if so, how much. Dr. Bouwer’s research showed that dry cleaning solvents could be broken down by bacteria in the ground, and explored ways to assist the process.

After Stanford, Dr. Bouwer accepted an assistant professor job at the University of Houston. He was quickly recruited by the Johns Hopkins University while the school was rebuilding its environmental engineering department. For nine years, Dr. Bouewer served as the department’s chair; in 2008, he was named the Abel Wolman Professor of Environmental Engineering.

His research explored not just whether contaminants were present, but also how best to manage the situation if they were. As director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Center for Hazardous Substances in Urban Environments and later while head of the Center for Contaminant Transport, Fate, and Remediation, he led influential studies of contamination in Maryland’s urban areas. He consulted on disasters such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and researched depleted uranium at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The latter project allowed him to use his background in nuclear science to understand the impact of Army bullets made with depleted uranium that were lodged in the soil after test firings.

In 2013, Dr. Bouwer warned of high chromium levels found during the construction of Harbor Point, the luxury development between Fells Point and Harbor East built above the former Allied Signal chromium plant. Much of Baltimore sits on top of chrome mine tailings, Dr. Stone said, and for years, the chemical contamination was visible after a rainfall. “When Ed and I first got to Baltimore, there would be places where ... it would rain and the puddles would be orange from the chromium,” he said.

A reliably pragmatic voice, Dr. Bouwer was quoted regularly in The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun on matters such as the discovery of prescription drugs in the waterways (which he deemed “not alarming,” according to a 2008 article in The Post), and toxins such as trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent found in well water at Fort Detrick (of which he warned, more ominously, “It doesn’t take too much to cause a problem”).

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At Johns Hopkins, colleague Grace Brush recalled him as a stabilizing force in the department during various changes, such as a 2016 merger with the School of Public Health. He made himself available to students, particularly undergraduates attempting to decipher their lists of course requirements. “Ed was very good about knowing exactly what the requirements were in the different areas and helping [undergraduate students] navigate their way through this," Dr. Brush said. He was gifted at working with struggling doctoral candidates; many owe their careers to his mentorship, Dr. Stone said.

After arriving in Baltimore, Dr. and Mrs. Bouwer purchased a home in Cockeysville, where they remained for more than three decades. In 1987, their first son, Scott Hendrik, was born; Christopher Lloyd was born in 1991.

A former Eagle Scout, Dr. Bouwer spent more than a decade volunteering with his sons’ Boy Scout troops, chaperoning monthly camping trips even on subzero winter weekends. "I remember when his wife first got pregnant, he said, “Wow, maybe there will be scouting in my future,” Dr. Stone said. He made time for a slew of events by sticking closely to a strictly organized schedule, Mrs. Bouwer said.


After he was diagnosed with myeloma, Dr. Bouwer and his wife planned a trip to the Galapagos Islands. This past January, they traveled to Antarctica, where they relished the snowy mountains, seals and “thousands and thousands of penguins.” An amateur photographer, Dr. Bouwer thoroughly documented their trips — as well as every family reunion and even his wife’s work events — with his camera.

A trip to the emergency room late last month revealed that Dr. Bouwer had invasive tumors throughout his abdomen. Nevertheless, the following morning, he showed up at Johns Hopkins to participate in the doctoral defense of one of his students. The student passed. It was Dr. Bouwer’s 26th doctoral student and his last time on campus.

In addition to his wife, mother and two sons, Dr. Bouwer is survived by two grandchildren and siblings Arch Bouwer of Portland, Oregon, and Annette Bouwer of Chandler, Arizona.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 at Central Presbyterian Church, 7308 York Road. His family requests that memorial donations be made to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Central Presbyterian Church or the Whiting School of Engineering.