Ruth Patrick – Who Was She and Why Should We Care

Ruth Patrick

Andrew Stiles is a fly fisherman. Every time he approaches a stream, hears the rushing water, peers below its crystal clear depths at the creek bed below, reaches his hand around a slippery trout to release it from the hook and watch it swim away, he should be thanking Ruth Patrick.

Because of Ruth Patrick, citizens of the United States can canoe down clean rivers; swim in clean ponds, and fish in clean streams. Ruth Patrick dedicated her very long life to discovering why our country’s freshwater streams and rivers become polluted and how to prevent it from happening. Who was Ruth Patrick and why should we care – because without her our very survival would be threatened.

Her peers in the environmental movement will mourn the passing of Ruth Patrick for a long while. She cared about the pollution of the natural environment, especially freshwater systems, long before there was an official environmental movement in this country. She was a pioneer, an inventor, a researcher, and a teacher. But, most of all she was an environmentalist, working tirelessly toward making sure the streams and rivers remained pristine forever.

Ruth Patrick took walks in the woods with her father. Frank Patrick was a Kansas City lawyer, who loved being in nature. He would take 5-year old Ruth and her sister strolling through the nearby fields and forests near their home on Sundays. He carried a can on a stick and encouraged the girls to pick up plants, rocks, mushrooms and worms to take home and examine under his microscope. Little Ruth would crawl onto her father’s knee and watch with fascination as he combined the specimens they had collected in the woods with drops of water and then pressed them onto the glass slides. “It was miraculous looking through a window at a whole other world,” she would recall in an interview at the age of 97. Her fascination in that world never waned.

She was a woman of many firsts in a field in which women did not come into until well after Ruth Patrick had become an expert. Her generation of young women was advised by their well-meaning mothers to learn the social graces and marry well and Ruth Patrick’s mother was no exception. But the daughter who loved science chose instead to pursue an education in biology, moving to South Carolina to attend Coker College in Hartville. She went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Virginia.

Although she worked studying freshwater ecosystem or limnology first as a graduate student and then as an assistant curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences, beginning in 1933, it was not until 1947 when Ruth Patrick would get paid for her efforts. She created the Academy’s Department of Limnology. Today that same department has been named the Patrick Center for Environmental Research.

The beginning of her firsts came from studying single-cell algae, diatoms, which live at the bottom of the food chain. After a breakthrough at heavily polluted creek in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Ruth Patrick became the first researcher to realize that different diatom species live in different kinds of environments and; therefore, could be used to measure water quality. Today this concept is known as the Patrick Principle, the ability to measure environmental impact through biological diversity. This principle became the foundation for all future studies in environmental management and science.


Ruth Patrick studied the ecology of rivers, lakes and streams throughout North and South America. When it became evident there needed to be a device capable of measuring the amount and kinds of diatoms in the water, she invented such a device called the Catherwood diatometer. It is still used the world over to determine what kind and how much pollution is present in a given body of water.

During the 1950’s, Ruth Patrick worked with the Atomic Energy Commission to evaluate the status of pollution in the Savannah River, which was near Dupont’s nuclear energy plant. This association led to her becoming the first woman to serve on Dupont’s board of directors in 1975.

The 1970’s brought a new awareness of the problems of pollution in America and Ruth Patrick was on the forefront of making positive changes. She became the first woman to serve as chair of the board of trustees of the Academy of Natural Sciences and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

During her lifetime, Ruth Patrick wrote over 200 scientific papers and many books, including “The Rivers of the United States,” a five-book set. By 1996, when President Clinton bestowed her with the National Medal of Science, she had received 25 honorary degrees and numerous lifetime achievement awards. In 2009, Ruth Patrick was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Who was Ruth Patrick and why should we care? She was the little girl who grew up collecting samples from nature and then looking in awe at their miniature worlds, though her father’s microscope, to become described by environmental scholars as “the foremost authority on America’s river systems” and “a pioneer environmental activist.” She is the one who saved our nation’s water.

Ruth Patrick died at the age of 105.

By: Lisa Nance

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