A native New Yorker, Evelyn Witkin received her Bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1941, and her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1947.
Witkin was in to study genetics by her skepticism about Stalinist scientist Trofim Lysenko’s now-discredited theories on how certain hereditary features could be changed by environmental factors. Realizing after a few months of study that Lysenko’s theories were indeed unfounded, Witkin remained committed to the field of genetics. She was particularly enthralled by DNA mutagenesis and the nature of DNA repair mechanisms, and pursued research on bacterial DNA at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in NewYork with Milislav Demerec.
A pioneer in the field of biological responses to DNA damage, Witkin made history in the mid-1940s with her first experiments. She identified a strain of E. coli bacteria known as B/r that was more resistant to radiation than the parental B strain. This was the first time mutations conferring resistance to radiation had been isolated.
Witkin continued her research at Cold Spring Harbor for ten years, first as a postdoctoral fellow with Demerec and future Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria, and then as a Staff Scientist. During this time, Witkin’s research focused on how bacteria could repair DNA damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
In 1955, Witkin accepted a position at the Downstate Medical Center of the State University of New York in the Department of Medicine. She built on her work on DNA response to UV radiation, laying the foundation for the elucidation of the molecular mechanisms by which UV-induced mutagenesis may be repaired. Witkin concentrated on understanding the cellular response to UV throughout her career, moving to Rutgers University in 1971, and remaining there until her retirement in 1991. Though retired from research, Witkin remains active in the field of genetics as a member of the Advisory Board of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University.
Evelyn Witkin has received numerous honors and awards in recognition of her achievements, including election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977. Her current passion involves finding connections between two of her favorite Victorians, Robert Browning and Charles Darwin. She has found evidence that both Browning and Darwin were influenced by a book by Nathaniel Wanley originally published in 1678 called The Wonders of the Little World, and has been elected Vice President of the New York Browning Society.