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October 15, 2013

Dr. Ruth Patrick, Water Ecology Pioneer, Dies at 105


Dr. Ruth Patrick, an early member of the Sierra Club in the Philadelphia area, died on September 23 in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania. She was 105.

Her death was announced by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, with whom she was associated for more than 70 years. Acclaimed Harvard University biologist E.O.Wilson calls Patrick "the den mother of ecology," and "a pioneer environmental activist."

Below, Dr. Patrick in the lab at the Academy, where she was still coming into the office at age 100. Her work studying the health of freshwater rivers and streams laid the scientific groundwork for modern pollution-control efforts.


Ruth Patrick was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1907. Her father, a lawyer, encouraged her interest in science from an early age, giving her a microscope when she was seven. She never looked back. She became a scientist in the 1930s, when few women were able to do so, and went on to be an advisor to presidents and the recipient of dozens of distinguished scientific awards.

"[Dr. Patrick's] studies of freshwater ecology in the 1930s helped galvanize the later environmental movement," reports the Washington Post. "[Her] success in a profession dominated by men charted a course for other female scientists."

Below, Patrick (fourth from left) and the team she assembled in 1948 to examine the health of Conestoga River in Lancaster County, Pa., where she achieved a major scientific breakthrough by establishing the relationship between diatoms -- a major group of algae -- and water quality.


Dr. Patrick's research determined for the first time that the number and kinds of species in a body of water -- its biological diversity -- reflected environmental stresses. The idea, which became known as the Patrick Principle, proved that biological diversity holds the key to understanding the environmental problems affecting an ecosystem.

A teacher at the University of Pennsylvania for over 35 years, Patrick wrote more than 200 scientific articles and authored or co-authored several books. She was a firm believer that is was essential for the government and industry to collaborate in fighting pollution, and she served as a consultant to both in developing environmental policy.

Dennis Winters, vice-chair of the Sierra Club's Southeastern Pennsylvania Group, stresses that Patrick was not only a distinguished scientist and academic, but an environmental trailblazer decades before concern with the environment finally caught the public's attention in the 1960s.

Over time, Patrick grew as comfortable and adept in the boardroom as in the lab, serving as advisor, director, and trustee for corporations, governments, and nonprofits. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1970 and received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton in 1996. For seven decades, Dr. Patrick championed environmental protection, mentored future scientists, and inspired countless others by the example of her life and work.

Learn more about Dr. Ruth Patrick on the Academy of Natural Sciences website.


All photos courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

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