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Ruth Patrick, stream biologist pioneer, dies at 105

Ruth Patrick, a pioneering stream ecologist whose work led to the modern environmental movement, died early Monday at age 105.

Ruth Patrick, at work at the Academy of Natural Sciences in 2006. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Ruth Patrick, at work at the Academy of Natural Sciences in 2006. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff PhotographerRead more

Ruth Patrick, a pioneering stream ecologist whose work led to the modern environmental movement, died early Monday at age 105.

In eight decades of work - she was still coming into her office at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University when she was 100 - she was summoned by presidents, was a respected adviser to industry, and was an inspiration and beloved mentor to so many young scientists that she was dubbed "the den mother of ecology" by Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson.

She received the National Medal of Science in 1996 from President Clinton, adding to more than three dozen awards and 25 honorary degrees.

A longtime resident of Chestnut Hill, Dr. Patrick died at the Hill at Whitemarsh, a retirement community in Lafayette Hill where she lived for the last few years.

Dr. Patrick devised a model, now known as the Patrick Principle, for gauging the health of a body of water by evaluating the biological diversity within it.

Conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy, biodiversity chair at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C., said he considers it "the basis for all environmental science and management."

Wilson said Dr. Patrick was the nation's foremost authority on its river systems, calling her "a pioneer activist, one of America's premier women science leaders."

Another of her feats was her work with diatoms, singled-celled organisms that she identified as key indicators of stream quality.

They launched her career, cemented her renown and helped define her life. "They're small, but they're lovely," she once told an Inquirer reporter as she gazed through a microscope at their intricate designs.

"Dr. Patrick assembled the definitive collection of diatoms, and it is a major resource here at the Academy," its President George W. Gephart Jr. said.

In 1975, Dr. Patrick became the first woman and first environmentalist appointed to the DuPont Co.'s board of directors. "When she spoke up in the boardroom, whether it was on the environment or business, everyone listened," former CEO Edgar S. Woolard Jr. recalled a few years ago. "She just had that kind of stature."

She advised President Lyndon Johnson on water pollution and Ronald Reagan on acid rain. In the 1960s, she worked with Congress on legislation that led to the nation's primary water pollution law, the Clean Water Act.

In the halls of the Academy, she was adored for her warmth. She often ate lunch in the cafeteria - the staff would make an exception and carry her tray to her table - surrounded by hordes of excited schoolchildren who had no idea that the grandmother in their midst had done so much. "The world is a better place because Ruth was in it," said Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, who, like so many, met Dr. Patrick - he was a student volunteer at the Academy in the 1950s - and forged a lifelong relationship.

Dr. Patrick was born in Topeka, Kansas, on Nov. 26, 1907, and spent most of her childhood in Kansas City, Mo. Her father, Frank Patrick, a lawyer, had a passion for the natural world.

At night, he'd go into his library and open his rolltop desk, which had a microscope. "If I had been a good girl," Dr. Patrick recalled, "I could climb on his knee and peer through the microscope."

Soon, he gave his young daughter his own boyhood microscope, and she spent hours with it "looking at everything I could" - often things she picked up on woodland strolls with her father, putting the treasures in a can that swung from a stick by a string.

Dr. Patrick's mother, Myrtle Jetmore, wanted her to learn social graces and marry well, but she opted to study biology, graduating from Coker College in Hartsville, S.C., in 1929. She also received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in botany from the University of Virginia.

In 1937, she became an unpaid assistant curator of microscopy at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Every week, wealthy men who had formed a microscopic society would step out of their chauffeured cars, and the young Dr. Patrick would prepare the room, although the men insisted she not touch their microscopes.

She was finally put on the payroll in 1945, and within two years she established the Department of Limnology, later renamed the Patrick Center for Environmental Research.

A wetlands preservation site near Savannah, Ga., where the Atomic Energy Commission asked Dr. Patrick to assess the health of the Savannah River near the DuPont Co.'s nuclear weapons plant, also is named for her, as is a lab at the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale. Formed at her urging, Stroud is known internationally for its work on streams and rivers.

A painting of Patrick sitting on a rock in the Susquehanna River hangs in the conference room where staff meetings are held - they often say, "Ruth's looking at us, so we have to get this right" - and a copy of her five-volume Rivers of the United States, one of more than 200 scientific papers and books, is in the middle of the table.

"It reminds us of what we're all about, where we came from and where we should be headed," said Bernard W. Sweeney Jr., director of the center, and another of Dr. Patrick's students.

In a way, Dr. Patrick will never leave the Academy. Its archives include a white pith helmet she often wore in the field, a "diatometer" she invented and many other artifacts from her life and work. "Yards and yards" of bookshelf space are devoted to her writings, Peck said.

Dr. Patrick who used her maiden name professionally, at her father's request, was married to Charles Hodge IV, a Temple University professor and authority on grasshoppers who died in 1985. He once remarked that being married to Dr. Patrick was "like being married to the tail of a comet." Her second husband, attorney Lewis H. Van Dusen Jr., died in 2004.

Her son, Charles Hodge V, a pediatric gastroenterologist in Kansas City, Mo., said that one of "her many wonderful traits . . . she has always been very loving, also very giving, and giving of her time. Growing up, I remember often on weekends, some student or young person coming over to get counsel or guidance about their life."

When friends or family members were sick, she would take them cream of watercress soup, he said. "We must have made gallons of the stuff."

Besides her son, Dr. Patrick is survived by three stepchildren, three grandchildren and many step-grandchildren and step-great grandchildren.

The family requests that donations be made to the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, 19118; the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, 19103; the American Philosophical Society, 105 S. Fifth Street, Philadelphia, 19106; and the Linda Hall Library, a major science library, 5109 Cherry St., Kansas City, Mo. 64110-2498.