Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ruth Patrick, "den mother of ecology"

The Philadelphia Enquirer recently profiled 99-year-old Ruth Patrick, the so-called "den mother of ecology". Patrick has worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia since 1933.

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.

Patrick began working for the Academy as an unpaid assistant curator of microscopy.

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."

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.

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."

Patrick finally stopped doing field work a few years ago, but she still pursues her research on diatoms at the Academy.

Read the whole article for more about Patrick and the Patrick Principle (via the Knight Science Journalism tracker).

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