Feature

Ruth Patrick, 1907–2013

The naturalist who stood guard over U.S. rivers

Soon after Ruth Patrick arrived in the mid-1930s at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia with a newly minted Ph.D. in botany, the institution recognized her talents enough to hire her—but it wouldn’t pay her. As the only female scientist there, she was also counseled not to wear lipstick on the job. Four decades later, in 1973, Patrick was named the first female chair of the academy’s board of trustees, having established herself as the nation’s foremost authority on freshwater ecology and a pioneer in the environmental movement.

Born in Topeka, Patrick was encouraged to study nature by her father, said The New York Times. “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,” she later recalled. “It was miraculous, looking through a window at a whole other world.” Patrick pursued that passion at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C., and the University of Virginia.

Soon after finally being put on the Academy of Natural Sciences payroll, in 1945, she founded its department of limnology, or freshwater ecology, since renamed the Patrick Center for Environmental Research, said NBCPhiladelphia.com. In 1948 she led a trailblazing study of a Pennsylvania stream and discovered that pollution could be gauged by the presence of single-cell organisms called diatoms. “Basically she demonstrated that biological diversity can be used to measure environmental impact,” said biologist Thomas Lovejoy. “I call that the Patrick Principle and consider it the basis for all environmental science and management.”

Patrick’s work led to the groundbreaking 1972 Clean Water Act, “which she helped write,” said The Washington Post. She advised Presidents Johnson and Reagan on environmental issues, and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1996. Patrick taught at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 35 years, and even at age 100, still came to her office to work on her 900-page Rivers of the United States. Patrick, said James Gustave Speth, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, was “addressing water pollution before the rest of us even thought of focusing on it.”

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