Dr. Ruth Patrick’s method for determining the health of freshwater ecosystems and measuring the impact of industrialization is still used today even though she developed it over fifty years ago. She would measure the diversity of plants and animals in a river ecosystem in order to look at the system’s health.
After earning her doctorate in botany from the University of Virginia in 1928, she began her career as an unpaid researcher and volunteer curator of the Microscopy Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Patrick went on to become an assistant curator at the Academy and then was promoted to Chair of the Limnology Department and the Curator of Limnology.
This department was unique in two respects, the first being that environmental research was a novelty at the time and her research team members came from a variety of scientific fields. Dr. Patrick’s specific area of research is diatoms–single-celled algae that are the most common types of phytoplankton–and their presence as one link in the chain encompasses the entire ecosystem. She concluded that the variety of diatoms and their species composition could indicate the degree to which a stream was polluted. Aware that similar information about the other life forms in the water like insects and fish could be used to evaluate water quality, she was among the first scientists to consider analyzing the composition and diversity of a variety of algae, plants, and animals collectively to determine the health of streams.
Leading a multidisciplinary team of scientists to study the Conestoga Creek near Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1948, Dr. Patrick examined groups of organisms in the water, not just the water itself, in order to get a clearer picture of its health. Within the next few years she would lead teams to investigate streams in South Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Patrick’s team was known for its technological innovations and she herself invented a diatometer that is used to determine the presence of pollution in fresh water. In 1983 the Department of Limnology was renamed the Patrick Center for Environmental Research in her honor.
Written by Angela Goad