Patrick began working for the Academy as an unpaid assistant curator of microscopy.
Decades ago, long before pollution became a public concern, Patrick discovered that diatoms are prime indicators of water quality because the cells' silica walls so readily absorb pollutants.
"You see," she says, "diatoms are like detectives."
She also devised a model - known as the Patrick Principle - for gauging the health of a body of water by evaluating all the life in it, from diatoms to insects to fish.
If this sounds familiar, it is because Patrick pioneered an ecosystem approach that now is common knowledge.
More than ten years after her arrival, in 1945, she was finally put on the payroll. Two years later, she founded a new department that is now called the "Patrick Center for Environmental Research". In addition to her field work and research, she also taught generations of students, and used her knowledge to influence environmental policy.
No other women were at the academy. Patrick wore pants to blend in, and she was once chastised for wearing lipstick.
"But I was determined," she says. "I was going to get my Ph.D. and I was going to write my thesis on diatoms."
Patrick finally stopped doing field work a few years ago, but she still pursues her research on diatoms at the Academy.
In 1975, Patrick became the first woman and the first environmentalist appointed to DuPont's board of directors.
"Just a charming, remarkable person," says former CEO Edgar S. Woolard Jr., who began an environmental push at DuPont in 1989, partly due to her influence. "When she spoke up in the boardroom, whether it was on the environment or business, everyone listened. She just had that kind of stature."
Read the whole article for more about Patrick and the Patrick Principle (via the Knight Science Journalism tracker).
- Patrick's Academy of Natural Sciences Profile, with link to a 2001 interview video
- WHYY "Hometown Legends" on Patrick with interview video
- Urban Rivers Awareness: Diatoms in Environmental Research
- Patrick in the Ecology Hall of Fame
- Lemelson-MIT Program Inventor of the Week
- Patrick's profile at "Dupont Heritage"
- Patrick's profile in the South Carolina Hall of Science and Technology at the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center
- Patrick's NCSE Lifetime Achievement Award
- Patrick's National Medal of Science Page