200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 86: “Conestoga Stream Survey ”

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1948 photo of environmental research crew
Members of the 1948 Conestoga Survey team. Ruth Patrick is fourth from the left. Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives Coll. no. 457

Conestoga Stream Survey

The year was 1948, and the Sanitary Water Board of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania asked the Academy’s Dr. Ruth Patrick to survey streams of the Conestoga Basin in Lancaster County. The board wanted to know whether the algae, plants, and animals living in these streams could serve as useful indicators of sanitary and industrial pollution. The project, conducted over several months, surveyed or sampled more than 150 stations in dozens of streams.

Dr. Patrick studied the water chemistry and physical characteristics of many of these stations extensively, paying special attention to their biological diversity. She examined in detail the abundance and distribution of aquatic organisms ranging from microscopic protozoans, diatoms, and rotifers to macroscopic snails, insects, fish, and flowering plants. By the end of the study, she and her team could discern patterns of diversity caused by organic and toxic wastes. They also could see varying degrees of recovery downstream from pollution sources. 

Dr. Patrick was the obvious choice to lead the project. She had been advocating this kind of approach for studying the environmental health of streams for some time. She was able to enlist the expertise of a number of highly regarded Academy scientists, and she recruited a number of experts from several leading universities. Such multidisciplinary research teams are commonplace today, but they were almost nonexistent 50 or 60 years ago. In addition to pioneering methods in environmental research, Dr. Patrick was breaking new ground on the way the research was conducted. As a female project leader working in a field where men normally determined research directions, she was a true pioneer.

Our Patrick Center scientists are still breaking new ground through their work in the Marcellus Shale Formation, New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay, and throughout the world. Read more about their work!

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