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Redefining Boundaries: Ruth Myrtle Patrick’s Ecological Program at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1947–1975

Abstract

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. In 1947, an opportunity arose for Patrick to lead a new kind of river survey for the Pennsylvania Sanitary Water Board to study the effects of pollution on aquatic organisms. Patrick leveraged her already extensive scientific network, which included ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson, to overcome resistance within the Academy, establish a new Department of Limnology, and carry out the survey, which was a resounding success and brought much needed money to the Academy. As demand for her expertise grew among industrial companies, such as the chemical company DuPont, Patrick became more active in the world of applied science. She repurposed data and instruments from her river surveys to run new experiments, test ecological theories, and conduct long-term ecological studies. Through these studies, she advanced an argument that biologist Thomas Lovejoy dubbed the “Patrick principle,” the idea that the ecological health of a body of water could be measured by the relative abundance and diversity of species living there. Patrick was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1970, became a board member of DuPont in 1975, and received two of the most prestigious awards in ecology: the Eminent Ecologist Award from the Ecological Society of America in 1972 and the Tyler Ecology Award in 1975. This article analyzes Patrick’s unusual success in bridging the worlds of science and industry and her unusual ability to cross, and redefine, the perceived boundary between basic and applied fields in biology. It argues that Patrick’s position at the Academy, an institution of natural history that was both willing and able to accept money from industrial corporations, is key to understanding her success in, and influence on, the field of river ecology.

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Notes

  1. G. Evelyn Hutchinson, “Tyler Award,” n.d., Hutchinson Papers, Box 25, Folder 405, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven; hereafter cited as the Hutchinson Papers.

  2. Sources are contradictory on the time Patrick spent between Philadelphia and Charlottesville in the early 1930s. Patrick stated that she completed doctoral coursework at the University of Pennsylvania, while Cairns pointed out that Patrick had become curator of the Academy’s Department of Microscopy by 1933. These sources suggest that Patrick settled in Philadelphia by 1933, although by then she had likely made several trips to the Academy. The biological sketches by those who were less familiar with her early career, such as Bott and Sweeney (2014) and Lowe (2015), simply point out that she moved to Philadelphia after receiving her PhD.

  3. At the time of Hodge’s death in 1985, Patrick created a memorial scholarship in his name at Temple for a “graduating senior in the Biology Department who has been distinguished in the areas of research and scholarly achievements” (College of Science and Technology Awards 2020).

  4. Earlier naturalists had also promoted the taxa’s valuable applications. For example, Mann, curator at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote that “there is no better illustration in science of the practical value of ecology than is afforded by the diatoms” (1921, p. 79). He contrasted the common conception of diatoms as “little more than the playthings of microscopists” with the more capacious vision he was proposing, in which knowledge of diatoms, the “great fundamental food-supply of the aquatic world,” would greatly enhance the current work in the fishing industry under the guidance of the US Bureau of Fisheries.

  5. William B. Hart to Ruth Patrick, June 28, 1946, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  6. Ruth Patrick to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, April 12, 1946, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  7. Ruth Patrick to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, July 8, 1946, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  8. G. Evelyn Hutchinson to Ruth Patrick, October 28, 1946, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  9. Ruth Patrick to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, December 27, 1946, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651. There is some evidence that Hart and Patrick influenced the Limnological Society of America, which formed a Committee of Ecological Effects of Waste Disposal in 1955, although the committee dissolved after a year. Its three members, Patrick, John Lyman, and Clifford E. ZoBell, were all part of the larger National Advisory Committee, which included Hart from 1951 to 1954; see Lauff (1963, p. 680).

  10. John E. Bowers, “Minutes, Academy Trustees,” May 19, 1948, Board of Trustees Records, Box 2, Folder 6, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia; hereafter cited as the Board of Trustees Records.

  11. John E. Bowers, “Minutes, Academy Trustees,” October 5, 1948, Board of Trustees Records, Box 2, Folder 6.

  12. August Thienemann to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, March 20, 1947, Hutchinson Papers, Box 49, Folder 822.

  13. To contrast Patrick’s survey to one from the same period that used far fewer taxa, see Gaufin and Tarzwell (1952).

  14. Patrick defined the typical, healthy station by selecting the nine healthiest stations based on all the collected chemical, bacteriological, and biological data and then averaging the number of species found within each group.

  15. John E. Bowers, “Minutes, Academy Trustees,” January 19, 1949, Board of Trustees Records, Box 2, Folder 6.

  16. H. Radclyffe Roberts to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, November 16, 1948, Hutchinson Papers, Box 1, Folder 12. See also the handwritten note by Hutchinson, dated November 17, 1948, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  17. G. Evelyn Hutchinson to H. Radclyffe Roberts, May 8, 1950, Hutchinson Papers, Box 1, Folder 12.

  18. Ruth Patrick to Eugene D. Crittenden, March 12, 1953, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 3, Folder 15, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia; hereafter cited as Ruth Patrick Papers.

  19. F. J. Giffen to Ruth Patrick, December 14, 1954; Ruth Patrick to F. J. Giffen, December 23, 1954, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 3, Folder 15.

  20. Patrick, Ruth. Letter to Paul Bigelow Sears, November 16, 1953. Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  21. Ruth Patrick to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, March 9, 1950, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  22. G. Evelyn Hutchinson to Ruth Patrick, March 13, 1950, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  23. Hohn left in 1961 to become a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Reimer remained with the Academy until his death in 2008. Patrick and Reimer’s work culminated in the massive, two-volume Diatoms of the United States (Patrick and Reimer 1966, 1975).

  24. Handwritten note by Hutchinson dated November 17, 1948, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  25. These include sections of rivers that were monitored using the diatometer, which I discuss below. Much of DuPont’s funding was issued evenly between 1950 and 1977. The Potomac Electric Power Company paid the Academy about twice as much money as DuPont, but only during the later period between 1965 and 1977. See E. L. Anderson, “The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Division of Limnology and Ecology, Summary of Work Performed, 1950 Thru 1977,” September 1, 1978, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 27, Folder 50.

  26. Ruth Patrick to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, November 21, 1950, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  27. Matthew H. Hohn to Ruth Patrick, February 3, 1959, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 27, Folder 30.

  28. Matthew H. Hohn to Ruth Patrick, July 1, 1958, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 27, Folder 30.

  29. Matthew H. Hohn to Ruth Patrick, January 7, 1959, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 27, Folder 30.

  30. Although the term “sanitary biologist” was not commonly used in the 1950s, it was prevalent at the Taft Center, where government scientists, such as Clarence Tarzwell, promoted the application of zoological and botanical knowledge to the problem of pollution; see Newcombe (1957) and Renn (1957).

  31. They quoted this definition from (Patrick 1953b, p. 33). Note how, in this case, Patrick mentioned only diversity and left out relative abundance of species, a crucial component of her method.

  32. Charles Mervin Palmer to Ruth Patrick, January 24, 1958, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 27, Folder 35.

  33. Ruth Patrick to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, January 3, 1950, Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

  34. E. L. Anderson, “The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Division of Limnology and Ecology, Summary of Work Performed, 1950 Thru 1977,” September 1, 1978, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 27, Folder 50.

  35. Reports for E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company, 1957 to 1980, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 140, Folder 18.

  36. Lewis H. Van Dusen, “Recommendation of the Departmental Program Committee Concerning the Policy and Program of the Limnology Department,” September 11, 1961, Ruth Patrick Papers, Box 27, Folder 49.

  37. For example, Cairns served as acting chairman of the Limnology Department from 1962 to 1963, when Patrick was given a leave of absence to complete her diatom manual.

  38. MacArthur and Wilson’s theory was criticized by Daniel Simberloff in the mid-1970s for its tendency to oversimplify and ignore historical processes; see Kingsland (1985, pp. 192–197).

  39. Ruth Patrick to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, November 21, 1950. Hutchinson Papers, Box 41, Folder 651.

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Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Sharon Kingsland for her steadfast support, as well as the faculty and students of the Johns Hopkins University Program in the History of Science, Medicine & Technology, who provided useful feedback at our departmental colloquium in March 2019. I also wish to thank archivists Jennifer Vess and Evan Peugh at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University for helping me navigate the Ruth Patrick Papers, two anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions, editors Marsha Richmond and Karen Rader for their encouragement and guidance, and Don Opitz for his thoughtful attention to the final draft.

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Hearty, R. Redefining Boundaries: Ruth Myrtle Patrick’s Ecological Program at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1947–1975. J Hist Biol 53, 587–630 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-020-09622-5

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