The Patrick Principle: Ruth M. Patrick, River Ecology and the Transformation of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1935-1975
Hearty, Ryan James
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Ruth Myrtle Patrick (1907-2013) was a pioneering ecologist and taxonomist whose extraordinary career at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia spanned over six decades. She was known especially for advancing an argument that biologist Thomas Lovejoy dubbed the “Patrick Principle,” the idea that the best way to assess the health of an ecosystem is by measuring its species diversity and abundance. Patrick specialized in the study of diatoms, single-celled planktonic algae, and pioneered the use of these widespread organisms as measures of stream pollution. She also devised creative experimental studies to test and refine ecological theories. Although Patrick’s major contributions, the highlights of her career and the discrimination she faced as a woman in a male-dominated scientific world have all been well documented in obituaries, interviews, documentaries, newspaper articles and her own brief memoir, none of these sources has explored her unusual career trajectory in great detail, or explained how she was able to attain such distinction in ecology. In my analysis of Patrick’s publications, her recently available archival material at the Academy and her correspondence with close advisors, such as George Evelyn Hutchinson, I argue that her role as limnologist, pollution expert and department chair not only shaped her own scientific career, but also transformed the Academy from a struggling natural history museum to one of the leading environmental research centers in the northeastern United States. By working for industries, she funded the Academy while creating research opportunities in the Department of Limnology, which she established in 1948. Leveraging her expertise in taxonomy and ecology, Patrick sustained a synergistic relationship between her applied work on pollution and basic research in river ecology for over three decades.