LimnologistRuth Patrick

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When growing up, Patrick’s mother wanted her to learn “social graces” and get married. Her father had a different idea: “Don’t cook, don’t sew. You can hire people to do that. Read and improve your mind.” And her father, a lawyer, took her and her sister on nature walks. “I collected everything: worms, mushrooms, plants, rocks,” Patrick said years later. “I remember the feeling I got when my father would roll back the top of his big desk in the library and roll out the microscope. He would make slides with drops of the water samples we had collected, and I would climb up on his knee and peer in. It was miraculous, looking through a window at a whole other world.” She made a career out of it: after getting a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in botany, she became a limnologist — a freshwater scientist, and accepted a job at the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1934. With a catch: because she was a woman, she wasn’t paid. (She proved her worth: she started getting a salary after seven years, and in 1973 she became the Academy’s first female chair of its Board of Trustees.)

Patrick studied streams and rivers, and the life she found in the water — and made note of what she didn’t find. Her theory: diatoms (a tiny algae/phytoplankton that is essentially the bottom of the food chain) would indicate the health of the water. Some diatoms thrive in certain types of pollution, while others die. This made it relatively easy, and objective, to identify water pollutants — which lead directly to the Clean Water Act in 1972 (she helped write it; Dr. Patrick served as advisors to both Democrat and Republican presidents). In 1970, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences; in 1975, she was given the John and Alice Tyler Ecology Award, at the time the world’s richest prize ($150,000) for scientific achievement; and in 1996 she received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton. “She was worried about and addressing water pollution before the rest of us even thought of focusing on it,” says James Speth, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Dr. Patrick died September 23 at a retirement home in Pennsylvania. She was 105.

From This is True for 22 September 2013