biologist, human impact, water

Ruth Patrick: A Pioneering Ecologist

Ruth Patrick was an ecologist ahead of her time, and she propelled the field forward with her innovate approaches. Earlier this week, on Sept. 23, she died at the age of 105. For most of her life she worked with The Academy of Natural Sciences, which is associated with the Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – after receiving her Ph.D. in 1934, she was an unpaid researcher at the Academy for about a decade before getting a paid position and establishing their Limnology Department, which was later re-named the Patrick Center for Environmental Research. Why such an honor? Patrick basically helped show that the biological diversity in a water system (like a lake, stream, or river) can help us understand how healthy, or damaged, that ecosystem is. And she found a lot of this can be done just by studying some tiny critters called diatoms.

diatoms diversity shapes
Many different shapes and sizes of diatoms. (Image credit: Kunstformen der Natur)

Diatoms are algae. They’re mostly microscopic, single-celled algae, but can form large groups. Uniquely, they have a cell wall surrounding them that is made of silica. Amazingly, it’s estimated there’s around 100,000 species, making the group quite diverse. In 1948, while studying the Conestoga Creek in Pennsylvania, Patrick and colleagues found that the presence of specific types and amounts of diatoms is a good indication of how polluted a given water system is. In other words, the biological diversity of the diatoms in the water is a key to understanding what’s going on in there pollution-wise.

In a time when environmental research was basically a novelty, Patrick was collaborating with people from other fields to develop a fine-tuned system for assessing whether, and how, different water systems were polluted. And to this day, the little algae are still examined in water samples for this purpose. Patrick’s story is also remarkable in that she became heavily involved in legislation and politics, helping to write the 1972 Clean Water Act and advising multiple presidents (Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan). She received numerous awards for her efforts, and clearly enjoyed sharing and doing her work – at the University of Pennsylvania, she taught for more than 35 years, and was still working at The Academy until she was 97.

While it can be easy to get caught up in any career’s everyday hustle and bustle, seeing someone else’s life accomplishments laid out can help invoke self-reflection and thoughts about the ever-elusive bigger picture. If we’re lucky enough to reach 105, will we be happy with what we did with all of those years? We can only trust that Patrick was, because if she wasn’t, there’s probably no hope for the rest of us!

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