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Evelyn Maisel Witkin Ph.D.

Evelyn Maisel Witkin Ph.D.

National Medal of Science - Biological Science 2002

Zoologist - Molecular Geneticist. E. coli. DNA mutagenesis and DNA repair. Interests: Science education in public schools; Connections between contemporary Victorians poet Robert Browning and Charles Darwin.

Essentially same grant from 1956 until retirement in 1991.


Generously contributed by Evelyn Maisel Witkin

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Evelyn M. Witkin, Rutgers University receiving the 2002 National Medal for Science, from George W. Bush, 2002. Author: National Science Foundation. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Evelyn Maisel Witkin was born in New York City on March 9, 1921. She attended New York City public schools, and obtained a B.A. degree in Biology from New York University in 1941. Her strong interest in genetics led her to Columbia University for graduate work in the Department of Zoology under the guidance of Professor Theodosius Dobzhansky.

In 1944, with the encouragement of Professor Dobzhansky, Witkin moved to the Department of Genetics of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, located at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York. She had become interested in the new field of bacterial genetics, which was being pursued actively at the Cold Spring Harbor laboratories. She had decided to study the process of radiation-induced mutation in Escherichia coli. Soon after her arrival in Cold Spring Harbor, she discovered a radiation-resistant mutant of E. coli, which became the subject of her Ph. D. dissertation research. She obtained the Ph. D. degree from Columbia University in 1947, and remained at Cold Spring Harbor, first as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Mliislav Demerec, and then as a member of the scientific staff, until 1955.

During her time at Cold Spring Harbor, the explosive birth of he revolution in molecular genetics, was taking place, and much of it was happening there. In that exciting atmosphere, Witkin began her 45-year long investigation of the mechanism of mutation induction by ultraviolet light (UV). She continued these studies with E. coli at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, where she worked from 1955 to 1971, and then at Rutgers University in New Jersey from 1971 to her retirement in 1991. By 1967, she had concluded that UV-induced mutations are due to error-prone replication past unrepaired UV-caused lesions in the template strand of DNA. She proposed that an error-prone DNA polymerase possesses the ability to bypass damaged sites in DNA that block replication by the more accurate normal DNA polymerases.

By 1973, with Miroslav Radman, she had discovered the inducible E. coli SOS response, whereby a large number of unlinked and metabolically unrelated but coordinately regulated genes are collectively induced when DNA damage blocks replication. The diverse SOS genes have in common only that they all promote the survival and replication of the irradiated bacteria, although the individual SOS gene products do so via a great many different activities. In 1974 Witkin demonstrated that that the activity responsible for ultraviolet mutagenesis (now known as DNA polymerase V) is induced by DNA damage as part of the SOS response.

Since retiring from active research in genetics, Witkin has been pursuing a long-held interest in the poet Robert Browning. She has been searching for (and has found) unsuspected connections between Browning and his contemporary Charles Darwin, her two favorite Victorians.

Witkin's research in genetics has won her many honors, including the 2000 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal from the Genetics Society of America, and the 2002 National Medal of Science.

Witkin was married to psychologist Herman A. Witkin (d.1979,) has two sons, Joseph and Andrew (d.2010) and four grandchildren. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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Photo: Courtesy Evelyn M. Witkin

Name: Evelyn Maisel Witkin
Birth: 9 March 1921 New York City
Title: Barbara McClintock Professor Emerita
Affiliation: Rutgers University
Citation: "For her insightful and pioneering investigations on the genetics of DNA mutagenesis and DNA repair that have increased our understanding of processes as varied as evolution and the development of cancer." Presented by President George W. Bush in a White House East Room ceremony on November 6, 2003
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