Evelyn Witkin on Leaving CSHL
  Evelyn Witkin     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2000

Oh, it broke my heart to leave, it really did. But my husband had been commuting for four hours a day for ten years. We had two children by then, both of my children were born while I was here and the commuting got harder and harder. He would miss a train and have to wait for another for hours. And [he was] not getting to see the children enough. And we both decided this isn’t the way we wanted to do things. So the idea was for me to move to some place closer to where his work was. And it worked out very well actually. But this was a hard place to leave, it really was.

When [Vannevar] Bush was head of Carnegie he came around very often and he knew what everybody was doing and he kept very close touch. He wrote a letter spontaneously—I never asked him to write any kind of letter for me. I knew where I was going and originally I was planning to go to Columbia to work with someone I knew there and then for one reason or another I changed and went to the Medical School of Downstate where my husband was. But he wrote a letter to Detlov Bronck who was the President of Rockefeller and he told him these glowing things about me and he said “If you’re lucky you might be able to get her,” and so on. But of course Bronck was not the least interested in those days—in adding a woman to his staff. Bush was very sweet to do that. He really knew what was happening here and he came around every couple of months and went into depth into everything. And he did this with all the departments I think. He knew what was happening here. Bush was also extremely unusual in his attitude towards women; this may not be known about him. When my first child was on the way I had timidly asked him if I could take a few months off. And he really amazed me; he brought me into another room where nobody could hear us. He sat me down and he said, “Look, I think it’s terrible that women have such a hard time to have a career in science and families. And as long as I’m the head of this institution,” oh, he said, “Institutions have got to change to make it work. And as long as I’m head of this institution we’re going to do what we have to do to make it work. What do you need for this to work for you?” This was 1949. And at first I said, “Do you really mean it?” And he said, “I’m very serious about this!” So I said, “Well, if you mean it—I would like to take a year off and then come back part time for a number of years.” “No problem,” he said, “Done!” And he had to cram this down Dr. Demerec’s throat, I’m afraid, because it was not his idea on how to do things. He didn’t let them reduce my salary when I came back. He said, “I know you’re going to do a full time job.” And of course I did a job and a half because it was so incredible that he had this attitude. I’m not sure that’s known that he had this very strong and early feeling.

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.