Ruth Myrtle Patrick: A Lover of Nature

By Admin
9 Min Read

‘If you’ll be a good girl, I’ll let you sit on my knee and look through my microscope’, said Ruth’s father when she was a little girl. The world of microscope took Ruth to another dimension. She found a world of utter fascination whenever she observed through the ocular lens of the microscope. It was a very proud moment for Ruth when she received her very first microscope. Imagine, a girl getting her first microscope at the age of 7. Such an amazing feeling!

Ruth Myrtle Patrick, born on 26th November 1907, in the city of Topeka, Kansas, was a pioneer in Limnology. She owed all her success to her father, Frank Patrick, who was a banker and a lawyer by profession, but he was the one who ignited Ruth’s interest in naturalistic learnings. This is the reason why even after marrying twice, Ruth always kept her maiden name in her student and professional life. During her childhood, Ruth’s father took Ruth and her sister for walks on Sunday afternoons, where they spent time together observing nature and collecting fascinating materials from woods and streams.

As she grew into a beautiful young lady, her interest in science grew even more. She started Coker College at the age of 19 in South Carolina. Her summers, during her college years, were spent at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. While, in graduate school, she met Charles Hodge IV, the man she wanted to spend all her life with. In 1931, she completed her Masters degree from University of Virginia. ‘A Study of the Diatoms of Charlottesville and Vicinity’ was her thesis title in post-graduation. She further pursued her education in the field of science, specifically Diatoms, and received her doctoral degree in 1934. Her dissertation title in Ph.D. was ‘A Taxonomic and Distributional Study of Some Diatoms from Siam and the Federated Malay States’. As she received her doctorate, she, along with her husband, moved to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, she started teaching at the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture. In 1933, she volunteered at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, because she got attracted by their diatom collection. In 1937, she became the curator of the Leidy Microscopical Collection at the Academy. In 1947, she founded the Department of Limnology. Later, in 1983, the name of it changed to Patrick Centre for Environmental Research, in her honour.

Ruth spent the summers and autumns of year 1948 near the streams draining the Conestoga River, and studied the relationship of the diatom composition of the stream with the health of the stream. Her study concluded that ‘as pollution increases, biodiversity decreased’. This conclusion has been named as the ‘Patrick Principle’, by Dr Thomas Lovejoy, and this principle has become the foundation of many environmental assessments being done in the present day.

One of the major inventions of Ruth was the ‘Diatommeter’, which she used on different river surveys all around the United States. She was called for help from various industrialists and government agencies to carry out river assessments. Before the Savanna River Nuclear Power Plant was established, Ruth, along with her team, carried out the assessment of the Savanah River. In 1979, she assessed the radionuclide contamination of the Susquehanna River due to the Three Mile Island accident. According to Ruth, she has studied almost 800 to 900 rivers and streams all over the world.

In the 1970s, she worked as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She taught various courses, including limnology, psychology and pollution biology. She was loved and respected by all her students, and she became a role model for women, especially who wanted to pursue careers in the field of science. This led to her winning many awards and laurels.

Ruth had written several books and more than 200 scientific manuscripts. Her famous works included: The Diatoms of the United States, Rivers of the United States and Groundwater contamination. Twenty-five honour doctorate degrees were awarded to her. She won numerous awards and honours, such as: John and Alice Tyler Ecology award in 1975, gold medal from the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp in 1978, and the National Medal of Science from President Clinton in 1996. Recently, the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, celebrated ‘The River Continuum’, written by Ruth and her fellow researchers, as one of the most cited papers in the field of stream ecology. This multidisciplinary paper covered watershed science, microbial ecology, hydrology, chemistry, entomology, fish, algal community structure and computer modelling. Ruth is also the founding member of the Benedict Estuarine Laboratory, Maryland, which today is known as the Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory.

Ruth had a very consistent relationship with the politics of the country as well. President Johnson took her advise on water pollution and President Reagan took her advice on acid rain pollution. Many governors of Pennsylvania referred to her on the issues of water quality. She was one of the members who developed the Clean Water Act, and she also worked on anti-pollution legislation along with Congress. At both, Federal and State level, she served as an advisor. She also served as the board member of WWF, Pennsylvania Power and Light Company, and several other organizations.

Ruth had a very welcoming personality. The doors of her home were always opened for her friends and colleagues. After discussing ongoing researches, she used to make dinner for everyone who was invited, including many famous scientists such as Robert May, Luna Leopard, George Woodwell and many more. Her home was basically a place where intellectual conversations along with great laughter and good food used to take place. Ruth was a bundle of joy, a package full of positive energy, curiousness, dedication, and above all intelligence. Her first husband said, ‘marrying Ruth was like being married to the tail of a comet’. She was a very hardworking women and a very dedicated environmental scientist. She was always working, and it was very difficult for her to take out time for other activities from her busy schedule. Whether it was 8 in the morning or it was 8 in the evening, you could call her anytime for work related discussions. Instead of blood, the purpose to achieve something big ran in her veins.  Her commitment and dedication to work was commendable.

After the death of her first husband in 1985, ten years later, she married Lewis H.VanDusen who was an attorney in Philadelphia. Her second husband died in 2004. She was left with a son, Charles Hodge V, three stepchildren and three grandchildren. On 23rd September 2013, Ruth left for her eternal voyage at the age of 105.

It’ll be safe to say that she lived her life the way she wanted to. Her only aim in life was to leave the world a better place for future generations. She truly enjoyed sharing her knowledge and her experiences with anyone who wanted to learn. She helped to solve world environmental problems and taught people to appreciate nature. She was truly an icon in the world of environmental science.

Author: Farah Khalid is a student of environmental sciences at Forman Christian College Lahore,Pakistan


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