A Biography of Ruth Patrick

Ruth Patrick

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1907, Ruth Patrick spent most of her childhood in Kansas City, Missouri. Her interest in the natural sciences was shaped by her father's passion for the natural world. As a young girl, she would accompany her father and sister on collecting excursions into nearby woods.

“I collected everything: worms and mushrooms and plants and rocks,” Dr. Patrick told an interviewer in 2004. At the age of seven, she received her first microscope. She was hooked.

Dr. Patrick obtained a degree in biology from Coker College, South Carolina, in 1929 and advanced degrees from the University of Virginia. Her long association with the Academy of Natural Sciences began in 1933 as an unpaid researcher and volunteer curator of the Microscopy Department. She was finally put onto the payroll in 1945.

Studying Diatoms

In 1937, Dr. Patrick became curator of the Academy's Leidy Microscopical Collection and promptly reinvigorated the institution's research in diatoms (a taxonomically and ecologically important group of microscopic algae). Part of this renewal was the ambitious effort to unify the diverse collections and other holdings into a single Diatom Herbarium. In addition, she expanded the size and scope of the collection through a series of collecting expeditions and acquisitions.

Of arguably greater importance was Dr. Patrick's initiation of the New Taxon file and the Literature Citation File. The former contained the listings and references of newly named diatoms and served as a much-needed—and substantially enhanced—replacement for F.W. Mills index, which had documented new diatom species from 1816-1932. The Literature Citation File served as a record of all scientific publications pertaining to existing as well as newly named diatoms. The Academy's Diatom Herbarium is—in large measure because of her efforts—one of the largest and most important diatom collections in the world.

Surveying Streams

Her work with diatoms informed Dr. Patrick that the species of these microscopic algae present in streams reflected the streams' environmental conditions. In particular, their variety and species composition could indicate the degree to which a stream was polluted. Moreover, she was aware that similar information about other organisms, such as aquatic insects and fish, could be used to evaluate water quality. At a time when other scientists were just beginning to investigate how pollution affected single organisms or limited groups of organisms, she was considering analyzing the composition and diversity of a variety of algae, plants, and animals to determine the health of streams.

In 1947, Dr. Patrick founded the Limnology Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences in order to implement this approach to studying water pollution. One of the department's first projects—widely regarded as a scientific milestone of environmental research—was a 1948 biological survey of the Conestoga River basin near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Within the next few years, additional stream surveys and other studies were conducted in South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas. Dr. Patrick led the Limnology Department from its founding until 1973. A decade later, it was renamed the Patrick Center for Environmental Research in her honor.

Environmental research of any kind was a novelty during the 1950s and 1960s, but Dr. Patrick's Limnology Department was unusual for another reason. It was a pioneer in multidisciplinary research. Instead of specializing in one discipline, the department possessed expertise in all the major groups of aquatic organisms as well as in the analysis of a stream's chemical and physical characteristics. The department was also notable for technical innovations. The most famous of these is the diatometer, a device invented by Dr. Patrick in 1954 to systematically sample and analyze diatom communities.

Partnerships and Recognitions

Dr. Patrick studied pollution’s effect on streams long before environmentalist Rachel Louise Carson made concern about pollution "fashionable." Unlike Carson, Dr. Patrick had a cordial relationship with government and industry and often worked as a consultant for both. In the 1950s, she began a long relationship with DuPont when the Atomic Energy Commission asked her to assess the ecological status of the Savannah River in the vicinity of the chemical company’s plant for producing nuclear materials. In 1975 she became the first woman and the first environmentalist on the DuPont Board of Directors. She was director of the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company and an advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson on water pollution and President Ronald Reagan on acid rain.

From 1973 to 1976 she was the first woman to chair the Academy of Natural Sciences' Board of Trustees and later held the Academy’s Francis Boyer Chair of Limnology. She formed the Environmental Associates, a group of corporate executives concerned about environmental effects of industrial activities. She taught limnology and botany at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 35 years and wrote more than 200 scientific papers and a number of books on the environment, including Power So Great, Colors of Tomorrow, and the series Rivers of the United States.

In 1970, Patrick became the 12th woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1974 she was elected to the American Philosophical Society. She received the John and Alice Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 1975 and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Bill Clinton in 1996. She received lifetime achievement awards from the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography and the National Council for Science. Other awards include the Pennsylvania Award for Excellence in Science and Technology, the Eminent Ecologist Award from the Ecological Society of America, the Gold Medal from the Royal Zoological Society of Belgium, and the Benjamin Franklin Award for Outstanding Scientific Achievement.