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Ruth Patrick

1907 –

When I was a junior high school student, my biology teacher spent several days leading the class through a subject that I think none of us had ever heard of, Ecology. It’s remarkable that I remember this, since I remember nothing of any other junior high school classes.

But the one thing of those years, back during the Kennedy administration, stuck in my mind and influenced the remainder of my life. That was the dazzling idea that if you could study a pond and everything that lives and dies in and around it, all the plants and animals from the trees, cows and fish down through the tiniest microbes, even including the minerals in the mud at the bottom of the pond, the water itself, and the air above — all of this was interrelated and interdependent. This, he said, was an example of the science called Ecology.

What he didn’t say, though he might have, was that one of the scientists responsible for developing this idea was Dr. Ruth Patrick, who at that time was working in South Carolina at the site of the planned Savannah River nuclear power plant. She was involved in measuring the diversity of plants and animals in the river ecosystem to determine the ecosystem’s health. This was then a relatively new method that has since been adopted as the standard for ecological fieldwork. The method she developed is used today for determining the health of freshwater ecosystems and measuring the impact of industrialization.

Don Weiss
Project Director, Ecology Hall of Fame

Ruth Patrick was born in 1907 in Topeka, Kansas. She received her B.S. degree from Coker College, South Carolina in 1929. She earned her M.S. degree and later, in 1934, a Ph.D. in botany from the University of Virginia. She went on to become an assistant curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before being promoted to Chair of the Limnology Department and Curator of Limnology.

In 1948 she lead a multidisciplinary team of scientists in a study of Conestoga Creek near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For the first time, scientists examined groups of organisms, not just the water itself, in an effort to determine the health of the ecosystem. The scientists were from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of the oldest continuously operating scientific institutions in the world (founded 1812). Since 1983, her department has been known as The Patrick Center for Environmental Research.

Dr. Patrick’s specific area of expertise is diatoms, the single-celled algae that are at the bottom of the freshwater food chain. She invented a diatometer, a which determines the presence of pollution in fresh water.

But her influence comes not from her technical expertise in this specialty but from her demonstration, in decades of research, that these diatoms are but one link in the chain that includes everything within an ecosystem. Accordingly, she has been honored repeatedly and deservedly ove rthe years. In 1970 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1971 she received an Award of Merit from the Botanical Society of America. In 1996, President Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Science. Recently, the wetland she studied at the Savannah River nuclear power station site was named in her honor by the U.S. Department of Energy. We are happy to add in a small way to her list of honors by including her in The Ecology Hall of Fame.

Web Links

  • There is a brief biographical note and lists of honors bestowed on Dr. Patrick, along with a partial list of her publications, at The Center for Environmental Literacy.
  • The Patrick Center for Environmental Research has an extensive website devoted to their scientific work.
  • The Academy of Natural Science has a biographical page devoted to Dr. Patrick.