Ruth Myrtle Patrick, 1907-2013

With the death of botanist and limnologist Ruth Patrick last fall (Sept 23, 2013) we wanted to share something about her illustrious career covering much of the last century! We were fortunate to have an excellent presentation on Dr. Patrick by HRC member Daniel Song at our session at the Minneapolis meeting, August 6, 2013. All photos courtesy Dan Song; taken in Dr. Patrick’s lab at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (ANSP).

In his review of Ruth Patrick in the intellectual community at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Song explains:

Although Ruth Myrtle Patrick was born in an era where women were encouraged to be educated on how to sew and cook, Patrick found other interests that she vigorously pursued. Patrick was born in November 1907 in Topeka, Kansas, more than a decade before her mother could cast a vote. Patrick’s interest in learning developed at an early age; when she was 7, her father gave her a microscope and launched her on a pursuit that would last nearly a century. (“You can hire someone to wash dishes,” he reportedly told her.) She graduated from Coker College in South Carolina, graduating in 1929, and earned her PhD from the University of Virginia in 1934. Soon thereafter, Patrick joined the Academy of Natural Sciences and took charge in two endeavors, diatoms and stream pollution.

In terms of basic research, Patrick’s work on diatoms became a foundation for future work in the field and led to the creation of one of the largest diatom research collections. In her own trail blazing way, she was interested in studying these microorganisms but there were no collections at the time. She started by collecting diatom samples from the intestines of preserved tadpoles from around the world. Her collection at the Academy now contains more than 220,000 specimens and is the second largest in the world.

Patrick’s love of these microscopic organisms led to the work that may be most connected to her: water quality. Patrick would end up making numerous visits to South Carolina to study pollution in streams. She proposed the use of diatoms as indicator species for the health of streams and was soon conducting biological studies in the Conestoga Basin. Patrick’s work paved the way for studies to utilize measures of biodiversity to assess stream health, particularly to monitor and mitigate anthropogenic pollution such as agricultural runoff and industrial discharge.

PatrCtr0153Ruth Patrick’s career at the Academy of Natural Sciences began during the Great Depression, and she worked there as a curator without pay for several years before she was given a paid staff position. In 1948, she created a department of Limnology at the Academy. The Patrick Center for Environmental Research was named in her honor.

Patrick received many awards during her long career, including ESA’s Eminent Ecologist Award in 1972. Others include: 1970, National Academy of Sciences, 1970; the American Philosophical Society, 1974; Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science, University of South Carolina, 1989; South Carolina Hall of Science and Technology, 1996.


Sample Papers by Dr. Patrick:

  • 1936. A taxonomic and distributional study of some diatoms from Siam and the Federated Malay States. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 88:367-470.
  • 1948. Factors effecting the distribution of diatoms. The Botanical Review October 1948, Volume 14, Issue 8, pp 473-524
  • 1949. A Proposed Biological Measure of Stream Conditions, Based on a Survey of the Conestoga Basin, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia Vol. 101, pp. 277-341
  • 1963. THE STRUCTURE OF DIATOM COMMUNITIES UNDER VARYING ECOLOGICAL CONDITIONS. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 108: 359–365. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1963.tb13389.x
  • Benthic Stream Communities. American Scientist, Volume 58, Issue 5, p.546-549
  • 1967. The Effect of Invasion Rate, Species Pool, and Size of Area on the Structure of the Diatom Community, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Oct 1967; 58(4): 1335–1342.
  • 1984.The history of the science of diatoms in the United States of America. p. 11-20 In: Mann, D.G. (Ed.) Proceedings of the 7th International Diatom Symposium, Philadelphia, August 22-27, 1982. Koenigstein, Otto Koeltz Science Publishers.

    Obituaries and References
    Obituary, Washington Post
    Obituary, New York Times
    Ruth Patrick Science Education Center, at the University of South Carolina; her bio there.

    OOS 11-5: Ruth Patrick in the intellectual community at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Presented Tuesday, August 6, 2013, at the Ecological Society of America meeting, Minneapolis, by Daniel S. Song, Department of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

Posted in Biographies

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