Evelyn Witkin on Milislav Demerec
  Evelyn Witkin     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2000

Dr. Demerec was marvelous—he really was! He was in touch with everything that happened in this place, both in the biological laboratories and in the Carnegie. Down to the last details. He really—concerned himself with—this may be embarrassing, but my husband was commuting and one day he told my husband, “If you have time, stop by Macy’s. They have a sale on toilet seats.” He was very anxious save money and he would come into a lab and if someone was using the cover of Petri dish as an ashtray he would have a fit. “Twenty-five cents they said,” and he actually went out once and bought nickel ashtrays in Woolworth’s and put them all around in everybody’s labs. But that was just that kind of concern with details—it probably explains why he kept this place running so well for so long on such a shoestring. Nobody else could do it very well that way afterwards.

But his science was really very innovative for someone who had so much of his career with higher organisms; he was the only one of the classical geneticists who really plunged into bacterial work at this time. And did some amazingly important work. And I guess I worked with him, he was more my mentor than anyone else I mean from day to day. When Luria was here I got a lot of help from him but mostly I interacted with Dr. Demerec and I learned a great deal from him.

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.

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