Recorded: 01 Jun 2000
The reason that I got into genetics in the first place, this is while I was an undergraduate [was that] a friend of mine, my first boyfriend, was a Harvard student who was quite a radical and he had gotten hold of [Trofim Denisovich] Lysenko’s papers. And we would read them and you know, Lysenko didn’t believe in the gene. He thought Mendel was a bourgeois nothing and didn’t believe in the gene and all you had to do was manipulate the environment and you could produce anything. And he was in power. You know, to Stalin this sounded great. You know the story. But at any rate, I didn’t know any genetics yet. So this sounded very nice. It would be wonderful to show that you could just manipulate the environment and change things. And I got intrigued and I thought this would be something to look into and my idea was in going into genetics was to test this! Actually it took about a month of genetics at Columbia to realize that he [Lysenko] was completely a fraud, but I never told Dobzhansky until his fiftieth [birthday] party. It was why I got into genetics and why I wanted a Russian advisor! I confessed, and that’s why—he thought it was absolutely hilarious.
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.