Ecology Ruth Patrick
Sarah Whorley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0253


Ruth Myrtle Patrick (b. 1907–d. 2013) was an American scientist whose singular focus on diatoms and their potential to diagnose aquatic ecosystem status made her a titan among scientists. Patrick’s body of work spans seventy-four years, with nearly two hundred publications. Patrick was born and grew up in Topeka, Kansas. She attended Coker College in South Carolina, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1929. She then moved to the University of Virginia for graduate school. In addition, she spent considerable time at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Following her completion of graduate school, she found a position with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This would be her professional home for the duration of her career. While at the academy, Patrick founded the Department of Limnology and expanded its preeminent collection of diatom flora from across the world and launched the use of diatoms as a group of organisms capable of bioassessment of water bodies. This extensive study of diatoms in freshwater habitats has firmly established Patrick as an international authority on freshwater diatom taxonomy, biodiversity, and ecology. Her work here forged new paths in freshwater science and helped it emerge as a critical discipline.

Early Publications

Patrick completed her master’s thesis in 1931, published as Lewis, et al. 1933, and her doctoral dissertation in 1934, published as Patrick 1936. During her time in graduate school, she published two other studies examining the biodiversity of microscopic organisms, namely soft-bodied algae and diatoms, respectively, in Cocke, et al. 1934 and Patrick 1935. Many of her early publications, such as Drouet, et al. 1938 and Patrick 1941, are explorations of diatom flora of Brazil. Patrick also had some initial manuscripts, Patrick 1939 and Patrick 1940, that delved into the vast topic that is diatom taxonomy and nomenclature. From the time Patrick completed her dissertation to the time she achieved a permanent position at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Patrick had almost twenty publications. In a very short period of time, Patrick had cemented herself as a global expert on diatoms.

  • Cocke, E. C., I. F. Lewis, and R. Patrick. 1934. A further study of Dismal Swamp peat. American Journal of Botany 21.7: 374–395.

    DOI: 10.1002/j.1537-2197.1934.tb04969.x

    A palaeoecological study of diatom frustules, sponge spicules, and tree pollen from peat deposits of the Dismal Swamp, located on the boarder of Virginia and North Carolina. Peat cores were collected from depths ranging between two and nine feet. Diatom taxa found indicate alternating patterns of fresh and saline water present. Interestingly, most of this manuscript deals with tree pollen present in the peat samples.

  • Drouet, F., R. Patrick, and L. B. Smith. 1938. A flora de quatro acudes da parahyba. Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences 10.2: 89–103.

    Part of Patrick’s continuing effort to characterize algal flora outside of North America and Europe. It is notably published in Portuguese. This study characterized the algal flora found on four dams throughout the Paraíba (parahyba) state of Brazil. It is one of several early publications focused on the freshwater algal flora of Brazil rather than the marine phytoplankton and macrophyte seaweeds of that country.

  • Lewis, I. F., C. Zirkle, and R. Patrick. 1933. Algae of Charlottesville and vicinity. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 48.2: 207–223.

    Dr. Patrick’s masters’ thesis, published two years after she graduated. This manuscript represents an early floristic description of the algal taxa present in the Charlottesville, Virginia region. This year-long survey documented over ninety genera and 249 different species, including four new species. Algal collections were made from whole water samples and, interestingly, from tadpole gut contents as well.

  • Patrick, R. 1935. Some diatoms of the Great Salt Lake as indicators of present and geological water conditions. Biology Bulletin 69.2: 338.

    A palaeoecological study of diatom flora from the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Diatom frustules were collected from sediments at various depths of the Great Salt Lake to characterize diatom succession patterns following the retreat of the Laurentian ice sheet. Taxa were grouped into categories with frequencies reported. Results showed how assemblages can shift with increasing ambient nutrient concentrations.

  • Patrick, R. 1936. A taxonomic and distributional study of some diatoms from Siam and the Federated Malay States. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 88:367–470.

    Dr. Patrick’s doctoral dissertation, published two years after she graduated. This manuscript again utilizes tadpoles and their gut contents, preserved in various museum collections, as a means of collecting algal flora, specifically diatoms. Few algal floristic surveys of Asia existed at this time. Patrick compiles the 185 taxa identified into a table that compares geographic distribution. Only 33 percent of observed taxa have a cosmopolitan distribution. This study also describes five new species.

  • Patrick, R. 1939. Nomenclatural changes in two genera of diatoms. Notulae Naturae 28:1–11.

    Based on work done in Brazil to characterize the algal biodiversity there, Patrick proposes the renaming of two genera of diatoms to be consistent with existing nomenclature. The genera of Diatoma and Actinella had already been used elsewhere in botanical nomenclature and so needed to be replaced with unique genera names to avoid homonyms. Patrick proposes Odontidium (used in a restricted sense) and Tibiella (no longer used), respectively, as replacements.

  • Patrick, R. 1940. A suggested starting point for the nomenclature of diatoms. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 67.7: 614–615.

    DOI: 10.2307/2481582

    Argues that a historical beginning to modern algal taxonomic names can be rooted in 1891 with the publication of G. B. de-Toni’s Sylloge Algarum, Volume 2, Bacillarieae (Padua, Italy: Typis Seminarii). This text provides many algal taxonomic names that are routed in improved microscopic techniques due to increased quality of microscope lenses as well as greater consistency in the notation of morphological features and habitat source information included with specimens.

  • Patrick, R. 1941. Diatoms of northeastern Brazil, Part 1: Coscinodiscaceae, Fragilariaceae, and Eunotiaceae. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 92:191–226.

    Patrick returns to Brazil to begin a comprehensive floristic survey with a focus on diatoms. Many of the results in this survey are found in other publication, cited within. Of the indicated diatom families, fifty different species were identified, among which are ten new species. Members of the genus Eunotia were found to have the greatest level of endemism among the taxa identified.

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