The Story of Ryman Prize Winner, Dr. Kenneth Rockwood

On December 15, 2021, local geriatrician and renowned frailty and aging health researcher, Dr. Kenneth Rockwood, received the prestigious Ryman Prize, an international award worth $250,000, that recognizes the best global work focused on quality of life for older people.

The Ryman Prize is the richest prize of its kind in the world. Dr. Rockwood’s win was announced on December 15, 2021, by the Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.


Who is Dr. Kenneth Rockwood?

Dr. Kenneth Rockwood—known more informally as “Ken” to us at DMRF—is a geriatrician at Halifax’s QEII Health Sciences Centre, a professor of geriatric medicine and neurology at Dalhousie University, and the DMRF Kathryn Allen Weldon Endowed Chair of Alzheimer’s Research. This chair position was established in 2000, as part of a $1 million endowed estate gift from the late Kathryn A. Weldon. A leading authority on frailty, Dr. Rockwood is renowned globally for his work.

“I went to medical school to become a geriatrician; it’s the only type of doctor that I have ever wanted to be.”
- Dr. Rockwood

Ken describes his background as atypical. Born in rural Newfoundland, he grew up in a household full of books, and lived alongside his mother’s parents, who taught him many important life lessons, including the importance of giving back to the poor and the sick, and creating and doing things with lasting impact. Years later, those beliefs manifested themselves in varying ways for Ken, who even tried his hand at firefighting, which taught him the importance of teamwork and making critical decisions under heavy pressure. It was these experiences in his early life that culminated in Ken’s decision to follow a career in geriatric medicine.


A move to Halifax, a loving family, and notable colleagues

Ken married esteemed professor and cardiology researcher, Dr. Susan Howlett, and they had two sons, Michael and James.  While Susan was from Montreal, and Ken, Newfoundland, the four decided to settle in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which felt like a reasonable compromise geographically. In Halifax, Ken and Susan found their work to be rich and fulfilling. Ken established great relationships with clinical colleagues, many of which continue to this day. Notably, Ken formed a personal and professional bond with the late Dr. Arnold Mitnitski, a brilliant mathematician who passed in May of 2021. Together, Ken and Arnold spent several years trying to understand and define what frailty was, ultimately creating the world-renowned frailty index, a way in which to understand how fit or frail an individual is. The frailty index is used in routine care all over the world, including in electronic form at the National Health Service in England. To quantify the level of frailty of an individual, the frailty index approach focuses first on the number of their health deficits, and then on the nature of those deficits.

“This approach helps to improve care and determine ways to prevent frailty in individuals, while also giving rise to the idea that people aren’t just frail,” explains Ken. “One of the most important things that has come out of this work is understanding the different degrees of frailty. There is a huge difference between being just very mildly frail and being very severely frail.”
 


A prominent research chair position

In July of 2000, DMRF and the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University created the DMRF Kathryn Allen Weldon Endowed Chair in Alzheimer Research, the first fully funded endowed chair established at Dalhousie University in 50 years. This position was created thanks to a generous estate gift from businessperson, philanthropist, and former DMRF Board Member, Kathryn Allen Weldon.  The search began immediately for the ideal candidate, with aspirations of finding a distinguished scholar with an international reputation as a clinical or basic scientist, and an excellent record of publication, funding, and scientific accomplishment. In January of 2002, DMRF and Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine announced Dr. Kenneth Rockwood’s appointment to this important chair at Dalhousie University.

“From a professional and scientific standpoint, I feel fortunate and privileged to have protected research time through the DMRF Kathryn Allen Weldon Chair in Alzheimer’s Research, which actually buys up 75 per cent of my time and allows me to do the research that I’m most interested in.”

- Dr. Rockwood


Our congratulations

The DMRF team, Board Members, Directors Emeritus, and donors congratulate and thank you Ken, for your hard work and commitment to frailty and aging research. The Ryman Prize is a testament to this momentous work as it is the world’s richest prize of its type and was established to create the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for people working in the field of the health of older people.

“On behalf of Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, I am both privileged and honoured to congratulate Dr. Ken Rockwood, the DMRF Kathryn Allen Weldon Endowed Chair in Alzheimer's Research, as the distinguished recipient of the Ryman Prize. Having supported and championed Dr. Rockwood’s ground-breaking research in frailty and aging across several decades through the support of our donors, we are excited to celebrate the global recognition of a long-standing professional partner. Ms. Weldon would be proud of the impact of her philanthropy.”

- Joanne Bath
Chief Executive Officer, DMRF

Read news release


A video salute to Dr. Ken Rockwood


Watch a live-stream of the Ryman Prize presentation: