John Briscoe, Winner of Water's Nobel, Dies

Environmental engineering professor John Briscoe, who specialized in water management and received the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize—commonly referred to as “the Nobel Prize of water”—died last Wednesday of cancer. He was 66.

Briscoe earned a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Harvard in 1976 and returned to Harvard as a faculty member in 2009. He held appointments at the the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the School of Public Health, and the Kennedy School of Government. He also directed the Harvard Water Security Initiative.

Originally from South Africa, Briscoe also spent two decades working for the World Bank, where he served as the country director for Brazil, the organization’s biggest borrower. Fluent in five languages, he had extensive experience working in a range of developing countries, including Bangladesh and Mozambique.

In March, he received the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize, a prestigious award for achievement in water policy and administration.

As a professor, Briscoe taught undergraduate and graduate-level water management and development courses and has been nominated for awards in exceptional teaching and mentoring.


Jan-Peter Bockstiegel ’15, who took Briscoe’s course, Environmental Science and Public Policy 10: “Environmental Policy,” remembers the engineer as a helpful and approachable mentor.

“At the end of semester, he invited everyone to his house for a barbeque,” Bockstiegel said, “He left a lot of students with a more hands-on perspective on a lot of the issues we are dealing with.”

Other students agreed. According to Kim Smet, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering, Briscoe always challenged students to think critically.

“He was quick to push people to think beyond the typical answers to a question,” said Smet, who served as Briscoe’s teaching assistant. “You had to be ready on the edge of your seat.”

Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, a Physics professor and former SEAS Dean, said he will miss Briscoe as a friend and a colleague.

“I saw him end of this May…. What was amazing was that even though he knew he had this terrible disease, he was very well-spirited and took life in a very mature and nice way,” Narayanamurti said. “I was just amazed at his fortitude.”

Peter P. Rogers, a professor of environmental engineering, taught Briscoe when he was pursuing his Ph.D. at Harvard. Rogers recalled Briscoe as a “super student” who became a “fantastic teacher."

“I was looking at his teaching reviews from the students, and I remember seeing such glowing reports. He was routinely called ‘the best professor I’ve had at Harvard,’” Rogers said. “[His death] is a sad loss for Harvard and for the water community around the world.”

Briscoe is survived by his wife, four children, and four grandchildren. No memorial service has been scheduled for him to date.

—Staff Writer Zara Zhang can be reached at