In Memoriam: Ruth Patrick (1907-2013)

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By Robert McCracken Peck

Ruth Patrick 1907-2013 Photo courtesy The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Dr. Ruth Patrick (1907-2013) probably needs no introduction to the readers of The American Naturalist, or to anyone who has taken an interest in environmental matters over the last half century, for she has become so well known and so influential in her work with water as to become something of a household name. During her energetic and eventful 105 years, she authored or co-authored over 200 scientific papers and dozens of books. Among the most influential of these are: Diatoms of the United States (1975), Groundwater Contamination in the United States (1983), and Rivers of the United States (1996). She received countless awards, and more than 25 honorary degrees. The first woman to be elected president of the American Society of Naturalists (1975), she was made an honorary lifetime member of the society in 1988.


I had the good fortune to know Dr. Patrick as a family friend for more than 50 years, and to work with her at the Academy of Natural Sciences for more than thirty. The line between these two relationships ¬- personal and professional - was always delightfully blurry; not just for me, but for everyone who ever knew or worked with Ruth. In her private life she was engaged and passionate about her science, and in her professional career she was warm and personable, treating her students and colleagues with respect, courtesy and affection. It was her civility to one and all that endeared her to so many, while her brilliance and rigorous adherence to the most demanding scientific standards enabled her to achieve national and international acclaim. Her popular moniker as “The Den Mother of Ecology” (coined some years ago by her friend E. O. Wilson at Harvard) reflects this seamless blending of warmth, humor, honesty, and intellectual rigor that made her such a beloved – and influential – figure in the world of science. Both encouraging and demanding in her expectations of scientific excellence she served as an important role model for many women entering professional careers in science in the decades following World War II.

Ruth Patrick with her interdisciplinary river survey crew on the Guadalupe River in Texas in 1947: Left to right: John Wallace (algologist), Tom Dolan (entomologist), Ruth Patrick, Chuck Wurtz (invertebrate zoologist), Jackson Ward (chemist), John Cairns (protozoologist). Photo courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Ruth Patrick was born on November 26, 1907 in Topeka, Kansas, where she received early inspiration in the natural sciences from her father, Frank Patrick, a lawyer who used to take her and her sister on weekend collecting forays to local streams and ponds, then analyze their aquatic discoveries through the brass microscope he kept on the desk in his study. After attending the Sunset Hill School for Girls (now Pembroke Hill School), she received her undergraduate degree from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina in 1929. She went on to the University of Virginia where she earned her Masters and Doctorate degrees, completing her PhD in 1934. Dr. Patrick’s dissertation was on the diversity and ecological significance of diatoms, the single-celled aquatic organisms to which her father had first introduced her. Her knowledge of diatoms and their role in aquatic ecosystems would become central to her professional career.


Ruth Patrick moved to Philadelphia in 1933 to have access to the Academy of Natural Sciences’ internationally renowned collection of diatoms. She worked with this collection as a volunteer for four years before receiving an unpaid academic appointment at the Academy in 1937. She did not receive a full-time salary from the institution for another eight years. The Academy of Natural Sciences (a part of Drexel University since 2011) would remain her professional home throughout her remarkable eighty-year career. She was elected the first woman chair of the institution’s board of directors in 1973.

In 1947 Dr. Patrick organized the Academy’s Limnology Department and launched the first in a series of pioneering studies of polluted streams and rivers in Pennsylvania. Her use of diatoms as indicators of water quality and her insistence at looking at the entire eco-system of a river in order to diagnose its health were among the hallmarks of her influential research. Her recognition that biological diversity is a critical indicator of environmental health has been dubbed the “Patrick Principle” by the conservation biologist Tom Lovejoy. Accepted today as a guiding principle in environmental science, the concept was new and still unproven when it was championed by Dr. Patrick in the 1940s.

Informed by her study of aquatic systems, and employing her considerable charm and contagious enthusiasm for her subject, Dr. Patrick became an effective champion of clean water on a national level. She helped the United States Congress to develop the guidelines for the Clean Water Act (enacted in 1972), and worked tirelessly behind the scenes in Washington and elsewhere to shape other important pieces of environmental legislation. She served as a non-partisan scientific advisor to almost every Congress and every U.S. president from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan with a particular focus on issues relating to the nation’s lakes, streams and rivers. In 1996, President Bill Clinton publically recognized her many contributions in this field by presenting her with the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor in the field.

When Ruth celebrated her 100th birthday, the Academy of Natural Sciences hosted a tribute dinner for her in Philadelphia. It was attended by hundreds of friends and colleagues from around the world. At that time I had the pleasure of reading through some of the hundreds of letters she received. There were letters from heads of state and scientific organizations, colleges, universities and other learned institutions. There were letters from friends and family and professional colleagues of every sort. As impressive as all of these were - and they were very impressive indeed - the ones I found most heart-warming were the letters sent to her by school children and college students who had read of her achievements and were inspired by the story of her life. In this context, her election to the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, her receipt of the John and Alice Tyler Ecology Award, the Mendel Medal, the Gold Medal from the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp, the Gimbel Award, the Philadelphia Award, even her National Medal of Science, pale by comparison to the heart-felt admiration and wide-eyed aspirations of young people just embarking on their own exciting lives of exploration and discovery.

Ruth Patrick will long be remembered for her holistic approach to environmental studies, her successful efforts to mediate between science and industry, and her effective diplomacy in helping to shape government policy on the environment. She will also be remembered for her warmth, energy, humor, insight, generosity, and boundless curiosity. In talking about her father, Ruth recalled that he had had always urged her to leave the world a better place for having passed through it. After many years of studying, explaining, and championing the health of fresh water systems around the world, there is little doubt that she fulfilled his wish. 

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will be hosting a symposium in honor of Ruth Patrick on April 22, 2014. For details go: to www.ansp.org.