An intellectual standout from an early age, Evelyn Witkin entered high school at age 12 and college at just 16. Although young, Witkin’s impressive intelligence and scientific knowledge allowed her to thrive at New York University, where she studied zoology. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1941, Witkin headed straight to Columbia University, where a new study area piqued her interest: bacterial genetics. Just a few years later, in 1944, Witkin accomplished her first major breakthrough: isolating a UV radiation-resistant mutant of the E. coli bacteria, the first time a mutation transmitting UV radiation-resistance was isolated.
Witkin’s career blossomed after receiving her Ph.D. in 1947. She continued her research at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and later at Rutgers University, where she studied DNA mutagenesis and DNA repair. Her findings remain highly valuable to scientists today. Fundamentally, her research on DNA repair has helped scientists understand why and how damage to genes, from factors like antibiotics, does not always lead to ailments such as cancer.
By Sara Grossman