Evelyn M. Witkin, a world-renowned geneticist who helped to unlock secrets to how DNA damage and DNA repair affect cancer and aging, died on July 8 after a short illness. She was 102.
The Rutgers professor emerita, whose career as a teacher and researcher at the university spanned two decades before she retired in 1991, was among a group of scientists, clinicians and public servants credited for making major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of human disease.
In April 2021, Witkin, considered one of the most accomplished scientists ever at Rutgers University, was honored at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology during a daylong virtual symposium attended by more than 300 scientists and others from around the world.
This year, on March 10, the day after Witkin turned 102, she attended the first seminar held in her name, which included an address by her long-time friend, Princeton University chair of the Department of Molecular Biology Bonnie Bassler.
"Evelyn was a national treasure. It’s impossible to do justice to her remarkable life and career. What really set her apart is how kind, humble, and gracious she was for someone so accomplished,” said Bryce Nickels, professor in the Department of Genetics and laboratory director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, who helped to coordinate the 2021 symposium to honor Witkin. “She was such a special person, one that was ahead of her time, and she serves as a tremendous role model not just for scientists but for all of us in terms of living a life full of integrity, kindness and humility. She will be deeply missed.”
A pioneer for women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, Witkin was the recipient of numerous awards including the prestigious National Medal of Science. She also had a laboratory at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology named in her honor – the first woman and only the second person at Rutgers to receive this tribute.
Witkin’s scientific accomplishments played an important role in the biomedical sciences and in clinical radiation therapy for cancer. She performed high-impact research in bacterial molecular genetics. Witkin was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977 and awarded the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal for Genetics in 2000, the National Medal of Science in 2002, the Wiley Prize for Biomedical Science in 2015 and the Lasker Prize in Basic Medical Research in 2015.
“Dr. Evelyn M. Witkin was a pioneering researcher in bacterial molecular genetics who established the existence of the DNA-damage response in bacteria and who opened pathways for women in the biological sciences. The Waksman Institute, Rutgers University, and the world all are poorer for losing Evelyn,” said Richard Ebright, a Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and laboratory director at the Waksman Institute, where Witkin was a laboratory director until she retired in 1991. “I am very happy the Waksman Institute and Rutgers University had the chance to honor her with symposia on her 100th birthday in March 2021 and her 102nd birthday in March 2023.”
Witkin began her Rutgers career at the university’s then Douglass College in 1971 and was a professor of biological sciences for two decades, named the Barbara McClintock Professor of Genetics in 1979. She was a Waksman Institute laboratory director from 1983 to 1991 and then a Rutgers and Waksman emerita scientist from 1992 until her death.
Considered an inspiration to her colleagues and students, Witkin was passionate about both her research and social justice issues throughout her life.
As an undergraduate student at New York University in 1940, Witkin was one of the “Bates Seven” who led a campuswide protest over what they considered was blatant racism. At the time, some northern universities had made “gentleman's agreements” with southern universities to keep Black football players from playing on segregated universities’ home fields. Leonard Bates, the star fullback and the only Black player at NYU, was prevented from traveling to the University of Missouri with the team to play.
The “Bates Seven” were suspended for three months after 2,000 students picketed the administration building and more than 4,000 signed a petition. Her role in the protests prevented Witkin from graduating in May 1941 and changed the course of her studies.
“I had planned to stay at NYU for graduate work in genetics, but I decided to go to Columbia,” she wrote in a story published in the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation publication in 2016. “My having gone to Columbia was the greatest blessing that ever happened to me professionally. I’m not sure I would be a National Medal of Science Laureate if New York University hadn’t decided that I was a bad girl in 1941.”
Funeral arrangements have not been announced. Her family plans to hold a celebration honoring her life sometime in the future.