BOX 2-8 RUTH PATRICK (1907–)

Ruth Patrick was a pioneer in predicting ecosystem risk well before these words were commonly used. She began her innovative studies of stream pollution in 1948 as curator of limnology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. At that time, most pollution assessments were carried out by sanitary engineers (now called environmental engineers). The prevailing view was that if river water met certain chemical and physical conditions, particularly related to dissolved oxygen and pH, there was little need to examine the biota. Patrick was one of the first to consider how pollutants might affect the organisms that inhabit streams.

Patrick spent much time persuading water pollution professionals in engineering that biological information was useful in determining ecosystem conditions. Most biologists were not especially interested in environmental pollution in those days—a fact now hard to comprehend—and the assessment and prediction of ecological risk went by default to those involved with water supply and wastewater treatment (predominantly sanitary engineers). In a pioneering survey of the Conestoga River basin in Pennsylvania, Patrick demonstrated that aquatic community structure was changed dramatically not only by pollution from human sewage but also by industrial pollution. Moreover, she demonstrated that there was a pattern in how aquatic communities respond to pollution that transcends the particular organisms present in any given stream. She tested her theories about the structure of aquatic communities in pristine environments during an expedition to the Amazon, which she led in 1955.

Patrick stands out not only for her important scientific findings but also for her contributions to the way science is carried out. She was a scientist when women scientists were exceedingly uncommon, a leader in developing the scientific team approach to problem solving when ''lone-wolf" scientific specialists were dominant, a pioneer in the systems approach of looking at entire drainage basins, and perhaps most important, living proof that theoretical and applied science not only can coexist but are commonly synergistic.

Acknowledgment of her many contributions was a long time in coming, but at age 63, Patrick began to receive wide recognition for her work. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1970 and received the prestigious Tyler Ecology Award in 1975. She also has received awards from the Botanical Society of America, Ecological Society of America, American Water Resources Association, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. She has received honorary degrees from two dozen schools and in 1972 was appointed to the board of directors of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company—the first woman board member.

Patrick was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1907. She developed an interest in microbiology at a young age when her father, an attorney, let her look through his microscope. She received a B.S. from Coker College in 1929 and a Ph.D. in botany in 1934 from the University of Virginia. In 1939, after a brief term at Temple University, she joined the Academy of Natural Sciences, where today she is Francis Boyer Chair of Limnology and senior curator.

SOURCE: Adapted with permission from the dedication in Cairns et al. (1992).



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement