Ruth Patrick remembered as a 'doer and a leader'

  • Posted: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 12:01 a.m.
Submitted photo
Beginning in the early 1950s, Dr. Ruth Patrick led a team of  environmental scientists, who tested the health of water systems around and at the Savannah River Plant and other sites throughout the country. Patrick died on Monday at the age of 105.
Submitted photo Beginning in the early 1950s, Dr. Ruth Patrick led a team of environmental scientists, who tested the health of water systems around and at the Savannah River Plant and other sites throughout the country. Patrick died on Monday at the age of 105.

Over the past 23 years, 1.3 million adults and children have visited the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center on USC Aiken's campus.

Yet they probably don't know very much about the remarkable woman for whom the center is named.

Dr. Ruth Patrick, who died on Monday at the age of 105 in Lafayette Hill, Pa., was a nationally known, award-winning environmental scientist – respected for her pioneering work at the Savannah River Plant even before the massive facility was completed in the early 1950s.

Dr. Sandra Jordan, the USCA chancellor since 2012, expressed regret she didn't get to meet Patrick.

“I have heard stories about her and her dedication to the environment,” Jordan said. “She was an amazing role model.”

Throughout her career, Patrick worked with the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The DuPont Company and Crawford Greenewalt, its president from 1948 to 1962, brought Patrick in to study the water systems that would be affected by the plant's mission.

“She was a person who belonged in the middle of it, wherever there was a stream,” Jack Corey, a chemist at the Plant, said. “She would get in her waders and go after it – a doer and a leader.”

Patrick continued to visit what would become the Savannah River Site for decades – as well as other locations selected by DuPont for its facilities. Her work was perhaps best known for how the health of a water system could be determined through biodiversity, primarily through microscopic plants called diatoms, said Dr. Jeff Priest, the first Ruth Patrick Center director and now the university's executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.

“She was a remarkable lady in the 25 years I've known her,” he said. “Dr. Patrick never left the Site and would come down a few times a year. She was always going to work daily in Philadelphia until she was 97 and then once a week through the age of 100. She even drove to work in a snowstorm one time.”

Her achievements were astonishing in another way, said Dr. Gary Senn, the present Ruth Patrick Center director. Born in 1907, Patrick was encouraged to succeed by her father. In the 1920s, she received a biology degree from Coker College in Hartsville – unheard of in that era, Senn said. Patrick went on to get master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Virginia. According to an Academy biography, her association there began in 1933 as an unpaid researcher. Still in that role in 1937, Patrick became curator of the Leidy Microscopical Collection.

The work Patrick provided at the Site and other areas throughout the country were again, extremely unusual, said Dr. Bob Alexander, USCA's chancellor from 1983 to 2000. The industry as a whole had no interest in water quality issues in the 1950s, but Greenewalt recognized the significance of the work..

“When we decided to name the new facility after her,” Alexander said, “he (Greenewalt) wrote a check for $250,000. That's how strongly he felt about her.”

The Ruth Patrick Center offers to families the DuPont Planetarium and the staff's own camps and classes – as well as programs hosted by other organizations. Patrick's work, said Senn, inspired the center's motto – “Infusing a Love for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

“Many people were amazed that Dr. Patrick was still living,” Senn said. “It's sad she isn't here with us, but her legacy lives on.”

Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter.

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