Senator John Heinz


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The Heinz Awards


Ruth Patrick

Occasionally, the Heinz Awards program receives nominations of individuals whose life's work has been so exceptional that a special, honorary recognition - the Chairman's Medal - is considered. This year, Ruth Patrick is being so recognized for her lifetime commitment to the understanding, improvement and protection of the environment.

Dr. Patrick developed far-reaching new theories about the critical relationship between biodiversity and a healthy environment. Assembling and leading teams of ecosystem scientists, she created an entirely new field-based method for quantifying environmental health. Much of what is done today in environmental science and management rests on the principle of pollution and biodiversity that she presented more than half a century ago.

One of the true pioneers in the field of ecosystem science, Dr. Patrick dominates (and in many ways has defined) her chosen field of limnology - the scientific study of freshwater rivers and lakes. Probably the world's leading authority on the ecology of rivers, she is an internationally recognized expert on river pollution.

As early as the 1940s, she began forming unique partnerships with industry, government agencies and community groups to foster a more effective environmental stewardship. During the 1950s and '60s, long before others were aware of the concept of "ecosystem services," Dr. Patrick conducted pioneering studies that quantified the ability of tidal wetlands to serve as natural wastewater treatment plants. Her visionary studies demonstrated that such wetlands have a tremendous capacity to cleanse water by absorbing and assimilating a variety of pollutants. This ecosystem approach, a radical advance in its day, has led directly to the use of constructed wetlands in watershed management programs around the world. It is apt and fitting that this pioneering wetland research was conducted in Tinicum Marsh, which today is part of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.


Ruth Patrick passed away on September 23rd, 2013.


November 2007 - Dr. Patrick was honored at a celebration commemorating her 100th birthday, noted as "a living legend whose work has had a national impact on the clean water movement, having pioneered research advancements in the field of freshwater ecology for more than 70 years." - The Academy of Natural Sciences

January 2004 - Dr. Patrick received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council for Science and the Environment. She was recognized for a lifetime "of distinguished and innovative leadership in science and service to society." - National Council for Science and the Environment

September 2003
- Dr. Patrick is a speaker at the first annual Urban Environmental Summit in Philadelphia. The summit will bring together "more than 100 policymakers, environmental professionals and activists" to "explore the latest thinking about issues related to the environment." As a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Patrick was a clear choice to discuss the current state of the environment and potential threats to its future. - Market Wire

January 2002 - Dr. Patrick received the Mendel Medal for her "extraordinary contributions to water research." The medal, given by Villanova University, "has been awarded in the past to Nobel laureates, medical researchers, scientist-theologians, and pioneers in physics, astrophysics and chemistry." - Villanova University


3/12/2002 - Acceptance Speech

I have had the opportunity to study a great many rivers most of which are in the United States. Whereas most of my studies have been on freshwater portions of rivers, I have also made some studies on the saltwater portions or the estuaries of rivers. My studies started when I was a small child taking walks with my father on Sunday afternoon. At the end of the walk, he would gather water from the nearby stream, put it in a bottle, and we would return home. Following a brief period of refreshment of milk and cookies, we would go into the library where he had a large roll-top desk and in this roll-top desk were microscopes. He selected the one that was suitable for what he wanted to show me, and thus I learned a great deal about the diversity of life in rivers.

In 1945, I gave a talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and I pointed out that in a natural river there are a great many species of plants and animals and that these species formed ecosystems, and that it was the functioning of these ecosystems that made possible the removal of pollution from a river.

After the talk, a Mr. Hart, a lesser official in the old Atlantic Refining Company came up to me and said, "You have discovered facts that will help us in this burgeoning problem of water pollution". He went away and raised the money that made it possible for me to prove the importance of species diversity in maintaining water quality in rivers.

More recently I have come to realize that in the various habitats in a stream, such as the riffles, the pools, or among the vegetation, there are functioning ecosystems of aquatic life, which by their functioning are able to remove the pollutants from the stream. For example, among the plants growing in a stream, one will find detritivores, algae, herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores. These ecosystems also exist in polls and riffles.

It is this high diversity and redundancy that gives stability to the natural biological systems in rivers. Without such redundancy, cleansing or the restoring of the stream to its natural conditions would probably be difficult or impossible. Thus a great number of species organized into ecosystems is the basis for rejuvenation of water quality and shifts in kinds and numbers of species enable one to measure the imprint of man's activity on the ecosystem. This is the basis of the theory which Dr. Lovejoy has called "the Patrick principle".

The amount of water on our planet is limited. It is recycled through evaporation, precipitation, and runoff. Through this recycling it is cleansed.

In the 1970s I was able to show the importance of wetlands, particularly Tinicum Marsh, which is now part of the Heinz Preserve on the Delaware River. These studies showed that in the 512 acres of Tinicum Marsh the reduction of pollution in the river per day would be about 7.7 tons of BOD, 4.9 tons of phosphorus as PO4, 4.3 tones of nitrogen as ammonia, 138 lbs. of nitrogen as nitrates, and there would be an increase of 20 tons of oxygen. This ability of marshlands to remove pollutants from the river is the reason why these marshlands are so important to maintain their natural functioning condition.

The oceans are large but they must not become polluted. Thus it is very important that we maintain our natural wetlands in our estuaries and the natural functioning of the riverine systems.
Ruth Patrick
Ruth Patrick