Ruth Patrick (born 1907) has pioneered techniques for studying the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems over a career that spans sixty years. Her studies of microscopic species of algae, called diatoms, in rivers around the world have provided methods for monitoring water pollution and understanding its effects.
Federal programs to monitor the status of freshwater rely on Ruth Patrick's method of growing diatoms on glass slides. Her studies of the impact of trace elements and heavy metals on freshwater ecosystems have demonstrated how to maintain a desired balance of different forms of algae. For example, she showed that addition of small amounts of manganese prevents the overgrowth of blue-green algae and permits diatoms to proliferate.
Patrick received the prestigious Tyler Ecology Award in 1975, and serves on numerous governmental advisory committees. She advanced the field of limnology, the study of freshwater biology, and in the late 1940s established the Department of Limnology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. She remained its director for more than four decades. Headquarters for her research are in Philadelphia, with a field site in West Chester, Pennsylvania. An estuary field site at Benedict, Maryland, on the Patuxent River near Chesapeake Bay, serves for studies of pollution caused by power plants.
Patrick was born in Topeka, Kansas, on November 26, 1907. Her undergraduate education was completed at Coker College, where she received a B.S. degree in 1929. She obtained both her M.S. degree in 1931 and her Ph.D. in botany in 1934 from the University of Virginia. The roots of Patrick's long and influential career in limnology can be traced to the encouragement of her father, Frank Patrick. He gave his daughter a microscope when she was seven years old and told her, "Don't cook, don't sew; you can hire people to do that. Read and improve your mind." Patrick's doctoral thesis, which she wrote at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, was on diatoms, whose utility derives from their preference for different water chemistries. The species of diatoms found in a particular body of water says a lot about the character of the water.
When Patrick joined the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1933, it was as a volunteer in microscopy to work with one of the best collections of diatoms in the world; she was told at the time that women scientists were not paid. For income she taught at the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture and made chick embryo slides at Temple University. In 1937 persistence paid off, and she was appointed curator of the Leidy Microscopical Society with the Academy of Natural Sciences, a post she held until 1947. She also became associate curator of the academy's microscopy department in 1937, and continued in that capacity until 1947, when she accepted the position of curator and chairman of the limnology department at the academy. Continuing as curator, in 1973 she was offered the Francis Boyer Research Chair at the academy.
In the late 1940s Patrick gave a paper at a scientific meeting on the diatoms of the Poconos. In the audience was William B. Hart, an oil company executive, who was so impressed with the possibilities of diatoms for monitoring pollution that he provided funds to support Patrick's research. Freed from financial constraints, Patrick undertook a comprehensive survey of the severely polluted Conestoga Creek, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was the first study of its kind, and launched Patrick's career. She matched types and numbers of diatoms in the water to the type and extent of pollution, an extremely efficient procedure now used universally.
By her own account Patrick has waded into 850 different rivers around the globe in the course of her research. She participated in the American Philosophical Society's limnological expedition to Mexico in 1947 and led the Catherwood Foundation's expedition to Peru and Brazil in 1955. Patrick was an advisor to several presidential administrations and has given testimony at many hearings on environmental problems and before congressional committees on the subject of environmental legislation. She was an active participant in drafting the federal Clean Water Act.
In 1987 Patrick coauthored a book, Groundwater Contamination in the United States, which provides an overview of groundwater as a natural resource, and a state-by-state description of policies designed to manage growing problems of contamination and depletion. Another of her concerns is global warming, the rise in the earth's temperature attributed to the buildup of carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere. In an interview reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989, Patrick said, "We're going to have to stop burning gasoline. And we're going to have to conserve more energy, develop ways to create electricity from the sun and plants, and make nuclear power both safe and acceptable."
Patrick has received many awards in addition to the Tyler prize, including the Gimbel Philadelphia Award for 1969, the Pennsylvania Award for Excellence in Science and Technology in 1970, the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America in 1972, the Governor's Medal for Excellence in Science and Technology in 1988, and the National Medal of Science in 1996. She holds many honorary degrees from United States colleges and universities. Patrick has authored over 130 papers, and continues to influence thinking on limnology and ecosystems. Her contributions to both science and public policy have been vast.
Further Reading on Ruth Patrick
Detjen, Jim, "In Tiny Plants, She Discerns Nature's Warning on Pollution," in Philadelphia Inquirer, February 19, 1989.
Washington Post, July 27, 1997, p. D1.
The Wonderful World of Dr. Ruth Patrick, unpublished paper by Geraldine J. Gates, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, February 16, 1987.