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Pioneering Ecologist Dr. Ruth Patrick Dies

PHILADELPHIA, September 23, 2013

Dr. Ruth Patrick, a freshwater ecologist whose pioneering research on water pollution set the stage for the modern environmental movement, died Monday, Sept. 23. She was 105 years old.

Patrick, whose illustrious career at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia spanned nearly eight decades, was a world authority on freshwater ecosystems. She developed key methods to monitor water pollution and to understand its effects on aquatic organisms of all kinds. Recipient of the National Medal of Science, Patrick is credited, along with author Rachel Carson, as being largely responsible for drawing widespread attention to the health of the environment.

Patrick died at The Hill at Whitemarsh retirement community in Lafayette Hill, Pa., where she lived for the last several years. Before that, she was a longtime resident of Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood.

Academy President and CEO George W. Gephart, Jr. said Patrick will be missed by generations of students, scientists, staff, and colleagues around the world, but her legacy lives on. “Over her long, productive life, Dr. Patrick assembled the definitive collection of diatoms, and it is a major resource here at the Academy of Natural Sciences,” he said. Diatoms are single-celled plants that Patrick identified as key indicators of environmental quality.

Harvard University biologist Dr. Edward O. Wilson called Patrick America’s foremost authority on its river systems. “She is a pioneer environmental activist, one of America’s premier women science leaders, and has been a major influence in stimulating multiple generations of scientists.”

Recipient of dozens of the nation’s top science awards and honors, including the National Medal of Science, Patrick developed an “ecosystem approach” to assessing the health of a water body. This approach, the current standard in river monitoring, involves not only examining the chemistry of the water itself, but also evaluating the number, kinds and health of the plants, insects, fish and other organisms living in the water. Early in her career, she devised a sensitive tool that aids in the detection of water pollution by measuring the diatoms present in the water.

At 100 years old, Patrick was still a familiar sight at the Academy, where she maintained an office to work on her book series on rivers. She enjoyed eating lunch in the museum cafe, where she sat anonymously among excited schoolchildren visiting for the day. On her 100th birthday she was celebrated with a gala at the Academy and received tributes from around the world, including from former Vice President Al Gore.

“The world is a better place because Ruth was in it,” said Stanford University biologist Dr. Paul Ehrlich, who first met Patrick in the 1950s when he was a student volunteer at the Academy.


Dr. Ruth Patrick’s main influence—her dad

Born in Topeka, Kan., on Nov. 26, 1907, Patrick spent most of her childhood in Kansas City, Mo. Thanks to her father, Frank Patrick, she enjoyed an unconventional upbringing for a girl at that time. A lawyer with a passion for the natural world, her father used to lead young Ruth—at about 5 years old—and her sister on Sunday strolls through nearby woods, where they collected bits of nature and put them in a can they carried at the end of a stick.

“I collected everything: worms, mushrooms, plants, rocks,” Patrick told an interviewer in 2004. “I remember the feeling I got when my father would roll back the top of his big desk in the library and roll out the microscope. He would make slides with drops of the water samples we had collected, and I would climb up on his knee and peer in. It was miraculous, looking through a window at a whole other world.”

Patrick gave Ruth a microscope of her very own when she was 7 years old. Such interest in nurturing a young girl’s pursuit of science was unusual for the time, and Patrick credited these experiences with launching her lifelong passion for the environment. One of the many values her father instilled in her, Patrick was fond of saying, was: “Leave the world a better place for having passed through it.”

Patrick attended Sunset Hill School, now Pembroke Hill School, in Kansas City, Mo. Despite her mother’s desire that she simply learn social graces and marry well, Patrick went on to study biology. She received a B.S. in 1929 from Coker College in Hartsville, S.C., and a master’s degree in 1931 and a Ph.D. in botany in 1934, both from the University of Virginia. In 2008, Coker College named Patrick its “Alumna of the Century.”


The Patrick Principle

Patrick’s long association with the Academy of Natural Sciences began in 1933 when she came to Philadelphia as a graduate student to study diatoms. In 1937, she became an unpaid assistant curator of microscopy. At that time, the beginning of the environmental movement was decades away, and there were few women in the field of science. Displays of femininity, such as wearing lipstick, were frowned upon at the venerable, male-dominated Academy.

In 1945, she was finally put on the payroll. Two years later she established the Department of Limnology, later called the Patrick Center for Environmental Research. She was the first to notice that different species of diatoms live in different environments and, therefore, are key indicators of water quality. At a time when other scientists were just beginning to investigate how pollution affected single organisms or groups of organisms, she was looking at all the major groups of aquatic plants and animals and attempting to learn how pollution impacted them. “By studying the conditions in which diatoms lived, I discovered that the presence of different species often pointed to different types of water,” she said.

“Basically she demonstrated biological diversity can be used to measure environmental impact,” said conservation biologist Dr. Thomas Lovejoy of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. “I call that the Patrick Principle and consider it the basis for all environmental science and management.”

She later expanded her research to include general ecology and biodiversity in rivers, studying hundreds of streams, rivers and lakes in North and South America. She invented the Catherwood diatometer, which allows scientists to collect diatoms growing in a water body. That invention earned her recognition from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Patrick studied pollution’s effect on streams long before Rachel Carson gave environmental issues such high visibility in her book Silent Spring. Unlike Carson, Patrick had a cordial relationship with government and industry and often worked as a consultant for both. She believed that environmentalists and industrialists could work together for mutually beneficial results concerning the environment.

In the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission asked her to assess the ecological status of Georgia’s Savannah River near the DuPont Company’s nuclear power plant. In 1975, she became the first woman and the first environmentalist to serve on the DuPont Board of Directors. She held positions on many boards, including those of the Pennsylvania Power and Light Co. and the World Wildlife Fund.

Lifetime of achievement

Patrick was an advisor to President Lyndon Johnson on water pollution and to President Ronald Reagan on acid rain. In the 1960s, she worked with Congress to help draft legislation that resulted in the Clean Water Act, the primary federal law governing water pollution. For the next 30 years she was called to Capitol Hill for frequent appearances as an environmental expert.

From 1973 to 1976, she served as the first female chair of the Academy’s Board of Trustees and later held the Academy’s Francis Boyer Chair of Limnology. She formed the Academy’s Environmental Associates, a group of corporate executives concerned about the 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 the five-book series, The Rivers of the United States.

In 1970, Patrick was 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 from 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 from the American Philosophical Society.

She received 25 honorary degrees, including from Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1996 was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Science and Technology. In 2009, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Her reputation spread beyond the scientific community, and a public television profile about her was nominated for a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award in 2005.

The Ruth Patrick Science Education Center at the University of South Carolina is named for her, as is a wetlands preservation site near on the Savannah River, Ga., and a courtyard at the New Jersey headquarters of the Delaware River Basin Commission.

Dr. Patrick was married to the late Charles Hodge IV and the late Lewis H. Van Dusen, Jr. She is survived by one son, Charles Hodge V of Kansas City, Kan., three stepchildren, three grandchildren, and numerous step-grandchildren and step-great grandchildren.

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