“Everything good that ever happened to me professionally came of my association with Cold Spring Harbor.”


— Evelyn Witkin

Chances and Choices: Cold Spring Harbor 1944–1955.

Annual Review of Microbiology Vol. 56: 1-15

From Bruce Stillman, President of CSHL

“We are pleased that Evelyn’s research at Cold Spring Harbor so many years ago has been appropriately recognized with the Lasker Basic Science Prize. Along with her Cold Spring Harbor colleague at the time Barbara McClintock, Evelyn was a pioneer in understanding fundamental aspects of genetics.”


A message from James D. Watson

I am most pleased that Evelyn Witkin has received the 2015 Lasker Award. It is a fitting recognition for her many contributions to science through a long research career that began at Cold Spring Harbor. It was here that she came in the summer of 1944 determined to work on the genetics of bacteria. And her first success came that summer when she isolated a radiation-resistant bacteria.


Although a graduate student at Columbia University, Evelyn returned to Cold Spring Harbor in 1945 and completed her thesis. She became a staff member and remained here until 1955. It was in the course of this research that Evelyn discovered a process of DNA repair, making most significant contributions to the field of DNA repair throughout her career.


Evelyn continued to play a role in the life of the Laboratory even after she had moved to SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, teaching the Bacterial Genetics Course for three summers.


Evelyn Witkin has been an outstanding example for women scientists everywhere, and an excellent role model for young scientists of today. Among her many awards are membership in the National Academy of Sciences (1977); Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1980); American Women of Science Award for Outstanding Research; and Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology.


September 8, 2015

Evelyn Witkin wins
Albert Lasker
Basic Medical Research
Award 2015!

(read the announcement)


1946. Inherited Differences in Sensitivity to Radiation in Escherichia Coli. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 32 (3). pp. 59-68.


1947. Genetics of Resistance to Radiation in Escherichia coli. Genetics 32:221, May 1947

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Pure Science, Columbia University. Witkin & others showed that various post-irradiation treatments (temperature, for example) affected the delayed appearance of mutations, & that these treatments were effective ig given prior to the cells’ first post-irradiation division. (Witkowski, Illuminating Life, pp. 257)


1950. Effect of nucleic acid on phenomic lag in Escherichia coli. Genetics, 35 (1). p. 141.


1950. The use of sodium nucleate in the study of the mutagenic activity of acriflavine in Escherichia coli. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 36 (12). pp. 724-731.


1951. with Kennedy, Frank L. A supressor mutation in Escherichia coli. The American Naturalist, 85 (821). pp. 141-142.


1951. Nuclear segregation and the delayed appearance of induced mutants in Escherichia coli. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, 16. p. 357.


1953. Effects of temperature on spontaneous and induce mutations in Escherichia coli. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 39 (5). pp. 427-433.


1956. Time, temperature, and protein synthesis: A study of ultraviolet-inducted mutation in bacteria. CSHSQB 21: 123-140.

Witkin made a definitive examination of the six hypotheses proposed to account for the delayed appearance of mutations. (Witkowski, Illuminating Life, pp. 258)


1961. Witkin, Evelyn M.   Modification of mutagenesis initiated by ultraviolet light  through posttreatment of bacteria with basic dyes.   J. Cell. And Comp. Physiol., Supplement 1 to v. 58, no. 3, December. 135-144.


1966. Radiation-induced mutations and their repair. Science 152: 1345-1353

Witkin demonstrated that her process “X” was excision repair of pyrimidine dimers in genes coding two particular transfer RNA molecules. (From the record of a workshop at the University of Florida Microbiology Department,  Gainesville,  Florida, April 4-6, 1975)


1967. TheRadiation sensitivity of E. coli B:  and hypothesis relating filament formation and prophage induction. PNAS 57: 1275-1279

Witkin  points out the striking parallel between treatments which promote or prevent prophage induction, on the one hand, & those which promose or prevent filamentous growth in Ion strains; suggests that both are results of inducible processes, initiated by inhibiting DNA replication and culmination in derepression; suggests that numerous bacterial operons maybe governed by repressors similar to lambda repressor, & that inhibition of DNA replication may initiate a unitary induction pathway resulting in multiple derepressions. (A workshop at the University of Florida Microbiology Department,  Gainesville,  Florida, April 4-6, 1975)


1994. Mutation frequency decline revisited. BioEssays 16: 437-444

Full understanding of the nature of MFD took many years. A key finding was that the process is strand specific & that it affects pyrimidine dimers on the DA strand that is used to make messenger RNA. (Witkowski, Illuminating Life, pp. 258)

1.Louise Chow, T. Broker, M. Fried, E. Witkin. 1981 Max Delbrück Laboratory Dedication


2. Margolins, Witkin, Lieb. 1981 Delbrück Dedication


3. Barbara McClintock 90th Birthday Celebration at Airslie House, 1990. Gerry Fink, Anna Marie Skalka, Evelyn Witkin, Alfred Hershey


4. Mark Adams, Sal Luria, Al Hershey, Joshua Lederberg in background. 1951 Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology


5. Milislav Demerec, Evelyn Witkin, Terry Sonneborn. 1947 CSH Symposia on Quantitative Biology


6. William Hayes, Evelyn Witkin, Norton Zinder at the 1953 CSH Symposia on Quantitative Biology


7. Waclaw Szybalsk, Evelyn Witkin, Manny Delbrück Hotchkiss at the 1995 Phage Course Anniversary Celebration at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory


8. Evelyn Witkin and Rollin Hotchkiss at the 1995 Phage Course Anniversary Celebration at CSHL


9. Theodosius Dobzhansky, Howard Leven, 1955 CSH Symposia on Quantitative Biology


10. Evelyn Witkin, AH Sparrow, 1947 CSH Symposia on Quantitative Biology


11. Milislav Demerec, Caryl Haskins, Vannevar Bush, Amyes Ames, 1955 CSH Symposia on Quantitative Biology


12. Chana Malogolowkin, Bruce Wallace, Th. Dobzhansky, 1957 CSH symposia on Quantitative Biology

1. Letter from Alfred Hershey to Evelyn Witkin from his office at Washington University in October 1947 regarding her research. This was prior to Hershey’s appointment to the C.I.W. Department of Genetics in 1950. In a few years, Alfred Hershey and his laboratory assistant, Martha Chase, would conduct experiments were a series of experiments conducted in 1952 that helped to confirm that DNA is the genetic material. For this, Hershey was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück. Right: Martha Chase and Alfred Day Hershey at the 1953 Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology.


2. Evelyn Witkin taught the Bacterial Genetics course for the first time in 1950. She subsequently taught the course in  1951, and 1953-1959. The drawing of Evelyn Witkin is a memento probably drawn by Alex Kohn, who also drew phage related cartoons for the bacteriophage course in 1951.


3. Esther Lederberg, Barbara McClintock, and Leo Szilard, 1951 Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology.

Image courtesy of Joseph Gall.


4. “One day early in 1949, physicist turned biology Leo Szilard and microbiology Bernard David knocked on my door. They had an idea. They believed that investigators in the new field of microbial genetics should have an informal newsletter-something like the Drosophila Information Service of Phage Information Series-to promote communication and disseminate information. Reminding me that I would have time during my maternity leave, they askied if I would consider organizing anad editing such a publication. After some hesitation, I agreed to do so. —Evelyn Witkin, Oral History, 2000


5. Bernie Davis, Milislav Demerec, after 1951 Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology


6. Letter from Vannevar Bush to Evelyn Witkin November 1949 appointment to Staff for year 1950


7. “I met Barbara [McClintock] my very first day here. I stayed at the dormitory and she was living there at the time. I guess I met here in the living room of the dormitory the very first day that I came and we started talking. I found her absolutely fascinating; she told me quite a lot about what she was doing. We became really good friends. And I spent a lot of time visiting her lab, and she developed a habit of calling me whenever she had something especially exciting. These were the years when she was beginning to discover transposition. I would just sort of drop everything and run over and she would show me something that was beginning to make sense to her and it was just such a privilege to be in that relation[ship] with her—to watch this story develop. It was unmistakably convincing as you explained it. You know, not having known very much about maize genetics it wasn’t easy for me to follow. But she was very patient about describing the experiments and she really was very confident about what she was doing.” —Evelyn Witkin, Oral History, 2000


8. “Shortly before the Luria-Delbrück paper was published, Professor Dobzhansky gave me a copy of it to report on it in class. He knew what was going on here. He spent summers here. He was friends of the director [and] he was very plugged into the activities here, and I got so excited about that paper and I gave this report sort of jumping up and down with excitement. Dobzhansky said, “Why don’t you go to Cold Spring Harbor and learn how to work with bacteria and do your thesis with bacteria,” which I thought was a wonderful idea. My husband was in the army then, and so I could just pick up and go. And so I came here in the summer of ’44, planning just to spend the summer learning what was what. —Evelyn Witkin, Oral History, 2000


9. Theodosius Dobzhansky, Undated












Awards and Recognitions

Evelyn Witkin was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1977, at the time she was one of the few women elected to the Academy.


She is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1978); a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1980); and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.


She was awarded the 2000 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal and her contributions to science have been recognized by the United States government as she was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2002.


The Wiley Foundation, awarded the 14th annual Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences (2015) to Evelyn M. Witkin and Stephen Elledge for their studies of the DNA damage response. These scientists discovered that all living cells can detect damage in their genetic material and respond in a way that ensures their survival.














“One of our staff members at Cold Spring Harbor is Evelyn Witkin. She is one of the brightest girls I ever saw and she has rung the bell time after time in the field of genetics …”


— Vannevar Bush,

a letter to Detlev W. Bronk, December 8, 1954

“The staff was quite small and we’d just sit around and one person would talk about their work every week. It was quite a revelation to the people giving the talks because the comments were often very biting, but very useful. With this kind of group it was wonderful!”


—Evelyn Witkin, Oral History, 2000

“Of course there were people here […] marvelous to talk to. […] There must have a dozen futures Nobel laureates just to talk to casually. We did some square dancing on the lawn, which is now the parking lot. It was a … group with a lot of humor and very serious work …”


—Evelyn Witkin, Oral History, 2000


“Having been in the field of genetics since the mid-1940s was an enormous privilege and the most exciting experience that I could imagine having in professional life.”


— Evelyn Witkin



Mila Pollock – Exhibit Curator/Executive Director of Library and Archives, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory


Clare Clark – Content/Archivist, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory


Thomas Adams –  Content/Systems Administrator/Digital Project Developer


Mathew Covey – Content/Science Informationist


Robert Wargas – Writer/Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory


Mikhail Iliatov – Designer

“Evelyn Witkin has been an outstanding example for women scientists everywhere, and an excellent role model for young scientists of today.”

— Dr. James D. Watson

Evelyn Witkin at CSHL Archives:


Evelyn Witkin Collection











Evelyn Witkin Oral History Interview




Related CSHL Colections:


Alfred Day Hershey Collection


Barbara McClintock Collection


CSH Symposia on Quantitative Biology




1. Gross, Carol. The 2000 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal Evelyn M. Witkin. Genetics February 1, 2001 vol. 157 no. 2 459-460 Read the paper


2. Gitschier Jane It Was Heaven: An Interview with Evelyn Witkin. PLoS Genet 8(10): 2012 e1003009. Read the paper


3. Witkowski, Jan. Illuminating Life: Selected Papers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1903-1969. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2000


4. Evelyn Witkin. Wikipedia entry


5. Exploratorium: Unwinding DNA. Voices from Cold Spring Harbor: Past and Present.

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