When Evelyn Witkin received the National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush in 2002, at age 81, she might have suspected that it would be the high point of an illustrious career. Perhaps it would be the icing on the cake of the 2000 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal, awarded for distinguished service to the field of genetics.
But in 2015, at a brisk 94, she won not only the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences but the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for her work with Stephen J. Elledge on DNA damage response.
Born Evelyn Maisel in Manhattan, she moved at age 9 to Forest Hills, Queens, after her father’s death. When she started New York University at 16 she was soon politically “hot” and was one of the seven students suspended in 1941 for protesting NYU’s part in discrimination against black athletes.
She started her doctoral work at Columbia, working on genetics at a time when DNA was barely known to be genetic material. She married Herman “Hy” Witkin in 1943 and went to work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where she heard James Watson’s first public talk on the discovery of the double helix.
For 50 years Witkin worked on the ways in which DNA responded to different types of damage, and on its mechanisms of repair. Her research work, her understated manner and her enthusiasm have shaped contemporary genetics.
She reached mandatory retirement in 1991 and is now a professor emerita at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers. Maybe there’s a Nobel Prize yet to come!