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Dr. Ruth Patrick

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Dr. Ruth Patrick was an American botanist and limnologist who studied the effects of pollution in water ways. She collaborated with Dr. Crawford Greenwalt and the Academy of Natural Sciences to determine the condition of the river where the DuPont Plant was due to be built so that they would be able to tell the effects of their operations upon the river.

Date of Interview:
May 31, 2006


Note: The interviewer’s questions (in italics) are sometimes paraphrased, but Ruth Patrick’s responses are provided with as much accuracy as possible.

CK: Why don’t you start by spelling your name for us?

My name is Ruth. My maiden name is Ruth Patrick [spelled-out].  My married name is Ruth Patrick vanDusen.  But I go under the name of Ruth Patrick scientifically.  I’ve never used “vanDusen.”

CK: On the documentary, people won’t be able to hear my questions, so say “Crawford” instead of “he” when answering questions… So now, I guess we’re rolling.  Tell us how you knew Crawford Greenewalt.

You want me to start by talking about Crawford Greenewalt?  Because he came along a little bit late in my career.  My career really started, if I may tell you that story, by Mr. W B Hart, of the old Atlantic Refining Company.  He heard me give a talk at one of the AAAS meetings.  That’s the American Academy of Science or, I’m mixed up but you can get it.  He heard me give this talk and he came up to me afterwards and he said, “You have discovered something that is going to help us in this burgeoning problem of water pollution.”  Then he came up to the Academy – this was back in the late ‘40s, or in the ‘40s, not necessarily late – and he questioned me and he went away. 

And he was the one, this is so hard [inaudible] the old Atlantic Refining Company that stirred up industry and told them that they ought to get the Academy, because they were a scientific institution, to judge the effect of their waste on a body of water where they were discharging.  And that was what started my work.

Crawford Greenewalt learned about this and called me to his office and then sent people up to see me.  And he decided that before any DuPont plant were to be built, the Academy of Natural Sciences and its team should go in and determine the condition of the body of water, before they ever started to operate, so that they would be able to tell the effects of their operations upon the river.  I was a scientist and up to that time, any tests that industry was doing, was done by putting fish in jars – usually 10 fish in several different jars with different concentrations of the effluent, and then they would determine which one killed the fish and which one didn’t and from that calculate a biologically safe concentration for industry.  Now that was Mr. Heart [?] who did that pioneer work.  Crawford Greenewalt learned about it.  It was a time DuPont was expanding.  And he said, “This is great.  We now will have a scientific basis on which to judge the effects of pollution of our plants.” 

So he ordered that no new plant should be built – this was his first order – without first have the Academy go in, and using its team of scientists, determine the effect of the waste.  They would make some waste and put it in the water and put it in various jars and determine the solution that was safe.  And so, before any plant, new plant – this was when DuPont was expanding – my team of scientists from the Academy, which consisted of a protozoologist, somebody specialist in algae, somebody specialist in invertebrates such as clams and worms and things like that, someone that was specialist in aquatic insects and someone a specialist in fish and a chemist.  Our teams consisted of six or seven people and at the order of Mr. Greenewalt of DuPont and of course, Mr. Heart and the plants he had charge of.  We would go into a river, select an area that ecologically was similar of other plants and where the plant would discharge.  And then we would study the aquatic life in these two areas, in order to be able to scientifically say whether the company had injured the river by discharging their effluent.  And typically, we studied two areas downstream, because it was known that most wastes that are discharged by industry have an immediate effect.  That is, the toxicity when discharged, and an effect after it has been in the water for awhile, and the organisms in the river have acted and reacted to it.

So, about 3 miles downstream, sometimes 10 miles downstream, we determined where, we would just thoroughly study everything from protozoa to fish to algae in the stream at that site.  Now, this was above the plant, immediately below the plant where the discharge [was], and the distance downstream that any effect was found.  And, Crawford Greenewalt saw that this was a correct, scientific way to look at the effect of a plant on a river.

So, he then ordered the Academy to go into every river where the DuPont plant was building a new plant first, and then we worked on [inaudible] works forever which had been in operation, but to go in, and set up these three areas, and thoroughly study, from bacteria to fish, along with all the algae and plants, the life in the river at that time.  Before they operate.  Then, after they’d operate, depending on the plant, we’d go in at various times and study the effect.

CK: That’s marvelous…  Say the whole name of the Academy and when it was founded…

Well the Academy of Natural Sciences, and this is a true statistic I’m going to give you, is the oldest institution in the Western Hemisphere that has continually, and that’s a big word, continually, being studied plants and animals.  And so I came to the ANS in the ‘40s.  I was a young girl just getting my Ph.D. and Mr. Heart had one of those Pollution Control Meetings about how organisms suffered from pollution produced from plants.  And he came up to me, and said “You have discovered something that is going to help Industry in this burgeoning problem of water pollution.”   After that time, they had put, they did anything.  They put ten fish in a number of jars and determined if the concentration at which they died.  And he saw that that was wrong.  Mr. Heart then went to Mr. Greenewalt, and DuPont was expanding at that time, and he said, “that young lady of the Academy has discovered something that’s going to save you a lot of money,” I think that’s what he said, “because you’re going to know if you follow her advice, what the true story is.”

So then, Crawford Greenewalt, head of DuPont came to see me.  Crawford Greenewalt was a man who loved birds.  He was a naturalist. He knew the Academy.  He came up to see me. He brought some of his people.  And they made the decree that DuPont would build no plant and start to operate it, unless the Academy had first gone and to determine the condition of the river in which they were going to discharge.   That was a revolutionary thing in those days!

CK:  What was it about Crawford Greenewalt that made him step up to this?

Well, he was a naturalist.  He loved birds.  He loved the natural life.  He knew that Industry was doing wrong things. In other words, what the thing that was being done to some extent by some industries, was Mr. W. B. Heart, also a naturalist and scientist, was concerned about this.  And he devised a means by which you put ten fish in a number of dilutions of the wastes in jars and determine the safe concentration, so called. 

Well, Crawford Greenewalt thought that that was good, but not good enough.  That you had to understand the natural environment…

CK:  That was great.  Can you talk about his study of hummingbirds?

Not a great deal.  I’m not a hummingbird expert.  He loved hummingbirds.  It was through the hummingbirds that I got to know him, because he came to the ANS where we have an excellent bird department, and learned about hummingbirds.  And there, somebody to told him or maybe he heard me give a talk, I don’t know how, he knew that I was studying the effects of pollution in rivers, because I had got the – oh, I’m going to have to look it up – but it was through Mr. Heart, a large grant of money from one of the companies.  It was one of the general ones like, oh.  Anyhow, he got this large sum of  money and he gave it to the state.  Mr. Heart gave this money to the state, saying this money is for Dr. Patrick and we want you, we want the State to be in charge to go into a river and determine how, by shifts in the aquatic life, you can tell the effects of pollution.  So, it was really Mr. Heart who stimulated the idea that, no longer could they just discharge, but that they had to know what they were doing.  And he knew that putting ten fish in two jars, or whatever they did, was no way to study what happened to fish in the natural environment.

CK:  How would you describe Crawford Greenewalt as a person?

Crawford Greenewalt?  Very fine.  Great ethics.  Tells the truth, nothing but the truth.  He was a – he was never afraid of telling the truth about anything.  He would, I imagine at times, say to people, “I can’t tell you that’s a company secret.”  I don’t know that as a fact.  But he would never compromise the truth.  You told the whole story, the whole truth, or you told nothing.

CK:  What was he like if he had a difference of opinion with you?

Well the only way I could tell you he handled it might have been many ways, was that he would say, “Dr. Patrick, that is very interesting, have you thought about it this way?” And then he would say, “Well, why don’t we do an experiment?”  And then I’d set up an experiment.  And we’d determine what was the correct way to judge that waste. 

At that time, you see, people really –  I’m giving them the credit of the doubt – I don’t think industrialists knew that waste could have an immediate effect and then, several days later, would cause chemical changes taking place in the waste as it went downstream.  It could have a very different effect and we pointed that out to Crawford Greenewalt.  I think that he knew it, but it never seemed that the hard-core experiments to prove it.  And so he loved that idea.  In other words, [he] said we would learn the whole truth about any waste.

He said, “I will take that fact back to the company and we’ll get back to you.  I appreciate your telling me what the true story is.”

CK:  What type of environmental reputation did DuPont have during this time?

Very good.  Very good.  No other company was doing as thorough a job. [CK:  Start that sentence again…]  DuPont, because of Crawford Greenewalt, was very conscientious about not discharging anything that would hurt the natural life in a stream or a body of water or lake or anything else.  So, I would never deal with lakes because I don’t know enough about lake ecology.  I did know a good deal about streams.  So, I would say to him, and he always bought it, “We’ll have to go upstream.  We may have to get two or three places where the stream is quite different – chemically, physically, in different places upstream, in order to compare, when you damage, downstream, what it’s going to be like.”  He always bought it.  Never once did Crawford Greenewalt say to me, “That costs too much money.”  He would question me as to whether it was necessary, what was I going to learn by doing this extra work.  But he never says, “we can’t do it because it costs too much money.”

I think that my passion for telling the truth, finding out the condition of rivers and such, was due to my father, who was a successful lawyer.  And he was very much interested in nature.  We would take walks every Sunday afternoon and my sister and I would each have a basket, and we’d collect everything.  And then, we’d go home and spread it all out in the dining room of all places.  And he would identify what we’d found.  And then he had in the meanwhile, he was one of the very first micospatists [?] in this country.  My father had it as a great hobby.  You see in those days, I’m off the subject, I’ll tell you.  In those they had no televisions, there were no fancy cameras as we have today.  What did educated people do in the evening?  Well, they all had microscopes.  And I could take you into the other room and show a series of books called ‘Science Gossip’ which was what these people all over the country would write letters to each other.  ‘I used such-and-such kind of a combination of lenses and I was able to see such and such.  The dots in a diatome colampular palusadin [?]’   And somebody else would write back and say ‘Well that’s fine, but I saw the hole in the center of the dots! Did you see that?’  And they would have these similar questions.  They would discuss it and say ‘what did you find’?  But that was the way that people who were fairly well-to-do, if they weren’t a sportsman, spent their time with a microscope. And as I said there was this journal of science gossip that went around in this country and England, I don’t know how much of Europe.  But [inaudible]

CK:  Tell me the advice your father gave you as a young child?

His words of wisdom was, “Find out for yourself.  Don’t depend on just what people tell you.”  And “Always tell the truth.” Always do enough work to burrow in to find out the real costs.  Don’t stop superficially.  In other words, if you find that fish were dying in a lake, take samples of the water.  Look at the other organisms.   See if there’s any interaction between the organisms.  Or, take samples of the water, to see if it was the water that was killing them.  He was a scientist at heart, he was a lawyer, but a scientist at heart.

CK:  Tell me about Crawford Greenewalt’s other passion for music…

No. I never got into that with him.  I didn’t know him that way.  I knew him, his wife.  She died quite early.  She was ill for a long while.  And, I think that he really turned to the environment and interests in that partially because he had, well he had this energy – intelligent energy, and he wanted to use it somehow.

CK:  Tell us about his hummingbird book

Well, in the early part of this century and the latter part of the last century, but up to then maybe still, but I’m not so familiar now with executives.  You see, I’ve got to go back a little bit to tell you how I knew Crawford Greenewalt.  Why I got to know him.  I was a scientist here at the Academy.  I gave a talk at the AAAS in which I pointed out that one had to look at the whole ecosystem, that is, everything from protozoa to worms to crabs to everything in the ecosystem, in order to discover the effects of pollution.  It was in the ‘40s or late ‘30s that Industry was becoming conscious that their wastes were killing things in the river.  It was in that period that the government, the state government and the federal government got interested in controlling Industry so they wouldn’t make these discharges. Up to that time, they had determined pollution, in fact when I first started working, they had determined the effects of pollution by putting ten fish or five fish in five gallons of water and determined what concentration killed them.

Well, from working with my dad from what I knew from my dad, I knew this was foolish.  So I gave a talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which I pointed out that this method was not good.  But you had to look, because each organism feeds upon the lower parts of the food web, because organisms were interrelated in their habitats and in their feeding.  That you could not just put ten fish in a jar and determine the effects of pollution.  You had to look at the whole ecosystem.  You had to look at how the pollution was affecting the organisms they fed on, the places where they lived.  The whole picture of what the organisms you wanted, fish, needed in order to live.  And, how the pollution was affecting any of these aspects of the natural life of the fish.  And, Mr. Heart heard this talk.  And he was with the old refining company, and I think his expression was, “You’ve got something.  We’ve got to change our ways of judging the effects of Industry.” 

I think, though I don’t know that this is true, that he was the one that went to Crawford Greenewalt and said, “that young lady at the Academy has discovered something that we all ought to incorporate in our building plans.”  This was a time when DuPont was expanding.  Up to that time it had been a Wilmington plant.  Now, it was going all over the country.  And, Crawford Greenewalt was a trustee of the Academy.  He knew my reputation in general, just as a scientist.  He knew, in other words, he knew I was honorable.  And, so he came to me and he said, “I was talking to William Heart.”  I think this is kind of how the conversation went. And he said that you were interested in pollution and that we are the effects of pollution and we are expanding. [tape malfunction]  And this, I think was due to my father, who was a lawyer, but was sympathetic with Industry.

And he said, “Ruth, they’re honorable industrialists and they’re crooked scientists, and you’ve got to judge whether somebody’s honorable or not.  But, we need,” and he was in sympathy what I was trying to do, he said, “we need your help.  We need the help of the scientists that won’t be compromised.”  And so I would say that to an industry.  I’ve had industries try to compromise me in the early days.  Saying, “Come on now, let’s go out and have a good time.  You don’t want to do all this work.  I’ll write a statement and you just sign it and it’ll be alright.”  “No way!” I never had a drink with an industrialist.  Never.  I never went on any parties.  But you see, I was lucky, because I came from a background where all these kinds of people were friends of my family.  Why should I do something special for them?  Why should I compromise what I knew was right?  It wasn’t worth it.  But I could easily see how many of them did.  Many of the so-called scientists of that age were really flawed by the money and the presents and what not. I never accepted presents from Industry.  When some man, some industrialist, would say to me, “Dr. Patrick, you’ve done so much for us.  We want to give you this something-or-other.”  I’d say, “Well, I appreciate that you appreciate that I’ve done work for you, but I will not accept any personal presents.”

CK:  Do you have any funny stories that would give people a sense of who Crawford Greenewalt was?

Who he was?  What he was?  Well, he was a very good-looking man.  He loved birds.  I first, he used to come up here.  We have a very good bird department – always have had – of the identification of birds, what we call the taxonomy of birds.  He was a great friend of Rudy [Dishawency?], who socially was very prominent.  You see, the Academy those days was mainly made up of men, who were well-to-do, prominent, and wanted a hobby.  And so they came to work on mammals or birds or fish or what have you.  Money didn’t mean much to them.  Certainly not in the sense of earning a living like that.  And, so, Crawford Greenewalt came up here to be with Rudy [Dishawency] and particularly James Bond, who was an excellent bird person.  Because he was interested in birds.

And, then, he heard people talking about it.  See, I revolutionized this place.  And, naturally various scientists, were saying, “That young lady, we don’t know what she’s going to do to this place.”  But I don’t know what they were saying.  He could, he knew who I was.  Then, I don’t know whether he or some of the DuPont men scientists, heard me give a talk.  And, told Crawford, “That young lady’s got something that we – she’s gotten on to something that we ought to pay attention to.  She really wants to look at the whole ecosystem and that’s what we’re all about.”  I judge that’s what they said to Crawford.

Anyhow, he became intrigued.  He was already in the Academy through Rudy [Deshawency], whom he really liked a lot.  And they were bird hobbyists together.  And so, he sent some of his members of the DuPont company to hear me give a talk about my theories, scientifically.  And then, he became interested from that, and then they came with him, with Mr. DuPont, Mr. Crawford Greenewalt, not DuPont.  With Crawford Greenewalt, to talk to me.  Crawford Greenewalt was a very proper man and I liked that, because I didn’t want to —  It so disgusted me, and it always has, when someone tries to take advantage of you because you’re a woman.  And tries to play up to you or something.  I don’t like that kind of activity.  And they knew that, so there was none of that, ever. Strictly business.

CK:  You visited him late in life.  Describe his demeanor towards illness.

I would go down to see him when he was, not in the very last days, but when he was ill.  He would be fully dressed.  He often would ask me to have lunch with him.  We would always talk about science.  We never, never talked about any personal relationships.  It was always about birds or my diatomes or animals or something.

CK:  I understand he was working on Birdsong when he died.

He was.  He loved his birds.  He loved working with them.  He also, I think, had a very brilliant mind.  And was intrigued with the idea that I said and had given many talks on the fact that I didn’t think that you could determine the effects of pollution or any other environmental effect by just looking at one group.  Such as birds.  But, that you had to look at the whole ecosystem.  Because birds couldn’t possibly live, if it weren’t for the trees, if it weren’t for the worms, if it weren’t for the other organisms.  So, you had to in other words

look at the whole ecosystem, in order to judge the effects of pollution.  And, so I organized these teams of scientists.  I had two teams.  And Crawford Greenewalt was expanding at that time and he ordered that no new plants should be built, unless we went out, the Academy went out, and determined the condition of the river before they ever discharged.  And so, we did.  We had two teams of people all over the country.

CK:  Did you ever talk about Rachel Carson?

We never talked about Rachel Carson, that I recall.  When I was with Crawford Greenewalt, we talked about rivers, the life in rivers, how chemicals – because he was a chemist – affected the solubility, the precipitation-ability of chemicals, things like that.  That were in his bailiwick.  I wouldn’t say his, but we talked a lot.  I visited.  He had me go down, because he so believed.  See, what I did was to organize here at the Academy, a team of scientists.  And I had a protozoologist, an etymologist, somebody who specialized in clams and various kinds of invertebrates, a phycologist someone interested in algae, two of them in fact, one interested in diatomes, which are a rather special group, one interested in the other algae, and a person that was a specialist in insects, and a specialist in clams and mollusks and such and this team of people usually – and a chemist – a water chemist, specialist in water chemistry. 

And we would go out as a team, before a plant ever started to operate.  And several of the big plants went on to this system, which Crawford sponsored.  And before the ever, and this was when DuPont was expanding.   Before they ever did anything to the river, we would go in and determine the condition of the river, where they were going to discharge, where upstream, where the effluent couldn’t possibly have any effect on the river, and downstream we knew that most chemicals have an immediate effect and then an effect after the chemical has interacted with the organisms, particularly the bacteria and the lower organisms in the stream.  And then what was the effect on the condition of the stream until that point.  Usually, the oxygen had been altered.  The form of the chemicals they had discharged had been altered  – things like this.  And so we did these three, at least three areas of thorough, and I would take in a bacteriologist, a protozoologist, a person specializing in insects, a person specializing in other invertebrates, a phycologist, that’s a person that specializes in algae, usually two people.  One, because diatomes are such a specialized group and one in the other kinds of algae, and of course, fish.  And this team of 8 or 10 people would go in and determine the condition of the river, above the plant where the discharge was to be made, and immediately below and then, it is had been found and is a truism, that most wastes have complex subsystems in them that take time to change and these changed products have a worse effect.  And many of them take the oxygen out of the stream so the water will have very little oxygen in it downstream.  And, we would look at these three areas, at least.  And, look at everything.  We would look at protozoa, we would look at insects, we would look at the worm group, we would look at the algae, diatomes are a special group and the other algae.

And then we would look at fish.  So our team would be 7 or 8 people.  And we would set up a laboratory in the rooms in one of these, oh places where you stayed, what do you call it?  Where they have little rooms are separate from the eating places?  [Dormitories?] What?  No, no no, it would be so common along as you drive along.  You’ll see a central house and then little cabins, well anyhow.

We would set up these teams and we’d look at everything.  We’d take over one of these areas, dormitories, or what do they call it, houses.  Well, you know it as well as I do.  You go to a motel, you have a room, or what do you call it a house?  You go, you stay in a hotel, and they give you a cabin, it isn’t a cabin, it’s a house where you live.  I can’t recall it.  Anyhow.

CK:  Anything else about Crawford you’d like to share?

I think one thing that you should get across is a personal relation.  So many people, oh you’re a woman, you’re going to get involved with these men.  No way!  I would be businesslike; I would be friendly at dinner. We would have a good dinner and such.  Immediately after that, as my mother taught me, go to your room!  And so I never had a date, or so called went out with, never.  Absolutely never.  These were business trips.  So you acted like a business person.  So I never had any trouble.

CK:  If you could say in one sentence.  Crawford Greenwalt was…

A scholar and a gentleman.

CK:  Can you say that…

Crawford Greenwalt was a scholar and a gentleman. Or he was a gentleman and a scholar. 

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.