Recorded: 01 Jun 2000
Well, the way I connected with Cold Spring Harbor is actually quite a strange story. I started at Columbia with [Theodosius] Dobzhansky and was planning—I had the first couple of years…finished my courses and was planning to start a research project with Drosophila.
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.
Then I went back to Columbia for a year but it didn’t work out because they weren’t set up for bacterial work. They didn’t have the right equipment and so on. So I came back and stayed until I finished my thesis and then I was appointed to staff so I actually stayed for ten years and my husband when he came out of the army loved it here and was willing to do the big commute—four hours a day. He did that for ten years.
But that summer in ’44 it was quite an amazing experience for me because the excitement about what happening was very intense. I mean Luria and [Max] Delbrück were here and the phage course hadn’t yet started, but there was a lot of work going on that was really very thrilling and I had never known how to even hold a pipette, or I’d never even had a course in microbiology. I didn’t know one bacteria from another. And I was just thrown into it. Dr. Demerec gave me a culture and sat me down near an ultra violet lamp and he said, “Go, induce mutations!” And mutations were what I had been interested and that’s what I wanted to do with Drosophila and so it was fine with me to start doing that. Those years were just marvelously exciting. There was so much feeling that suddenly we would be able to understand genes and that was something hadn’t seen at all likely for a long time. So it was a wonderful time to be here.
Of course there were people here who marvelous to talk to. I guess my lab was right next to [Alfred] Hershey’s—and people you met on the beach. 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, but at the same time Delbrück was a great one for practical jokes.
I remember one time when he had his phage people put on bandana masks and they broke into Dr. Demerec’s living room when he was interviewing some local wealthy people. They had water pistols; this gang of outlaws [and they] ran through the living room squirting water pistols. Dr. Demerec was not amused. He was not amused! But Delbrück was a great one for practical jokes, and that’s one I happened to remember.
Evelyn Witkin is a leading bacterial geneticist. She earned her Ph.D. in 1947 with Theodosius Dobzhansky at Columbia University for her Drosophila research. Her interests evolved from Drosophila genetics to bacterial genetics, and she spent the summer of 1944 at Cold Spring Harbor, where she isolated a radiation-resistant mutant of E. coli. Witkin remained at the Carnegie Institution Department of Genetics at Cold Spring Harbor until 1955.
In 1971, she was appointed Professor of Biological Sciences at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and was named Barbara McClintock Professor of Genetics in 1979. Witkin moved to the Wakeman Institute at Rutgers University in 1983. Among her many honors 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 of the American Academy of Microbiology.