200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 85: “Celebrating a Pioneer ”

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photos of Ruth Patrick
A sampling of photographs of Dr. Ruth Patrick's long tenure at the Academy. The one on the left shows her at work in the Diatom Herbarium, those in the middle are from her days leading the Limnology Department, and the one on the right shows her celebrating her 100th birthday at a gala at the Academy. Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives Coll. no. 457.

Celebrating a Pioneer

Today is the 104th birthday of Dr. Ruth Patrick, one of the Academy’s greatest leaders. Dr. Patrick began working at the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1933 as an unpaid researcher and volunteer curator of the Microscopy Department, and in 1945 she became a paid staff member. In 1937 she was named curator of the Academy’s Leidy Microscopical Collection and promptly reinvigorated the institution’s research in diatoms (a taxonomically and ecologically important group of microscopic algae). She unified the diverse collections and other holdings into a single Diatom Herbarium while making substantial additions to the collection and introducing new organizational systems.

Dr. Patrick concluded that microscopic algae present in streams reflected the streams’ environmental conditions and that similar information about other organisms could be used to evaluate water quality. When other scientists were just beginning to investigate how pollution affected single organisms or limited groups of organisms, she was analyzing the composition and diversity of a variety of algae, plants, and animals to determine stream health. Dr. Patrick founded the Academy’s Limnology Department in 1947 to implement this approach to studying water pollution. In the 1980s, the department was renamed the Patrick Center for Environmental Research in her honor.

Dr. Patrick’s work earned her recognition throughout the scientific world and beyond. From 1973 to 1976 she was the first woman to chair the Academy’s Board of Trustees, and she later held the Academy’s Francis Boyer Chair of Limnology. In 1970 Patrick became the 12th woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She received the John and Alice Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 1975 and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Honor Dr. Patrick’s birthday and lifetime of achievement today with a visit to the Academy, and learn more about her work.

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