Recorded: 01 Jun 2000
Well, I guess 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.
There was one funny incident I must tell you. One of these calls, she called me up and said, “Come on down I have something to show you.” I came down. She had some corn kernels with—most of her observations where on colored spots on kernels of corn—and she said, “Take a look at these kernels, what do you see?” I came and I saw purple spots and I didn’t see much else and she said, “Don’t you see they’re paired. There’s pairs of small ones and pairs of large ones and it’s if there’s some timed event that’s happening simultaneously in two cells.” Sure enough as soon as she said I should… I could see it! Anyway she didn’t know what it meant, but she was sure it was something interesting. I went back to my lab about ten minutes later the phone rings. “Forget it, Evelyn,” she said, “ I have found out that if you just put random spots on a piece of paper and decided to look at them as paired you will see them as paired.” So it didn’t take her very long to realize that it was an illusion and there was nothing there.
I came very often when Barbara McClintock was alive. I came to visit probably once a month. I was very close to her. Since then I have not come as often. I guess I was here a few times in the ’90s. The last time I was here was ’95, so it’s been five years.
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.