Patrick’s research on diatoms, single-celled algae, pioneered the methodology by which water pollution is classified and quantified, based on the types and numbers of diatoms in a water system. Her invention, the diatometer, accurately measures these organisms. Her work with diatoms helped the Allies locate a den of German submarines in the West Indies during World War Two. As Patrick tells the story, “The Navy had captured a German submarine and scraped a bunch of goop off the hull…[By analyzing] the diatoms in it, we were able to determine the location of the hideaway.”
Another landmark effort was her 1948 study of the ConestogaCreekBasin, the first comprehensive survey of the effects of pollution on the plants, animals, and microorganisms in a creek or river. Her approach, encompassing all organisms within a water system, was groundbreaking. Subsequently Patrick led innumerable expeditions throughout the world. She was known for her hip boots and white pith helmet, trusted friends as she waded into more than 850 stretches of river in pursuit of her studies.
Her teaching career at the University of Pennsylvania, spanning more than 35 years, was so influential that a Harvard entomologist called her the “den mother of ecology.” Patrick emphasized hands-on experience and had her students wading in the water on Saturday expeditions. Patrick was a prolific scholar, writing several books and over 130 journal articles. She received more than thirty awards for her scientific work.
Patrick counseled Presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and Ronald Reagan on environmental issues, and worked closely with both government and industry, serving on innumerable boards and advisory councils. Patrick pursued a practical environmentalism, searching for synergy between industry and environmentalists. In her view, “You can’t have society without industry… But on the other hand, industry has to realize that it is a responsible group.” She was the first female and the first environmentalist on the board of the chemical giant DuPont. Her involvement with private industry occasionally led her colleagues to criticize her for being too conciliatory to business interests.
Fifty years into her career, Patrick scoffed at the idea of retiring. “Retire? Cut back? You must be joking.” At age 99, Patrick was still reporting on a daily basis to her office at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Tamara A. Measler
Sources: Sandy Bauers, “The Den Mother of Ecology,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 2007; Tom Avril, “Ruth Patrick,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 2002; Sandy Bauers, “Philadelphia Biology Pioneer to Get Medal of Science,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 11, 1996; Jim Detjen, “In tiny plants, she discerns nature’s warning on pollution,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 19, 1989; “Dr. Patrick’s 50 golden years,” Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 1983; Edgar Williams, “After 50 years, scientist retains zest for her work,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 10, 1983; Michael Roddy, “Scientist sees threat to water,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 2, 1983; Maralyn Lois Polak, “Ruth Patrick: The Lady Wears Hip-Boots,” Today Magazine, September 11, 1977; Constance Holden, “Ruth Patrick: Hard Work Brings Its Own (and Tyler) Reward,” Science, Vol. 188, No. 4192, June 6, 1975; John Corr, “Dr. Patrick Gets Philadelphia Award,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 17, 1974. The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 17, folder 11 and Box 7, folder 14: support letters, newspaper clippings, programs, and articles. Photo: Philadelphia RecordPhotograph Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Comment: During her early career Patrick was often told she should be at home raising children rather than working in a laboratory. Her father’s financial support and strong encouragement appears to have been crucial in her dogged pursuit of a scientific career. Patrick often drew sustenance from homilies she had frequently heard from her father as a girl, especially his advice that a person should try everyday to make the world a better place.