Evelyn Witkin on Mary Bunting: Women In Science
  Evelyn Witkin     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2000

I could tell you one story about the 1946 symposium, which I don’t know whether you’ve heard. It’s a story about [Salvador] Luria. He was one of the organizers of the program. That was the first symposium after the war and it was the first one on microorganisms and he and some others were getting the program together and he had seen a paper by a woman named Mary Bunting which was published in 1938. [She] worked with bacteria. He was very impressed by that paper. He said that was really the only paper he knows of that does real bacterial genetics before his work with Delbrück. And he said, “She has to be on the program. We have to find her and get her to come to the symposium.” Nobody knew where Mary Bunting was and he did some real hunting. He got other people to work on it, and I remember he was saying at one point, “We can’t have the symposium without her. We have to find her!” Well, they did find her. Her husband was on the faculty at Yale Medical School and they located her there. And she had three young children and was expecting a fourth. That was her Ph.D. Thesis—this paper [that Luria spoke about] She hadn’t been doing any scientific work for awhile and when Luria proposed that she come talk about this work at the symposium she was horrified and said she couldn’t possibly, and doesn’t even remember and “Go away!” And he was very insistent and she did turn up at the symposium and gave this wonderful talk. And it really changed her life forever. I don’t know if you [know], [but] she became the Dean of Radcliffe College.

But what happened at the symposium was, since she was bogged down with babies at Yale, some of the people here who were at Yale—[such as] Ed Tatum, I remember—they arranged for her to have some lab space at Yale and invited her to come and do some work whenever she had time. She came to seminars and caught up with things. And then she got a job when her children were a little bigger. I think her husband died around there too. She became the Dean of the Douglas College at Rutgers and she had done some very good work there in microbiology. And then she went on to become the Dean of Radcliffe and started the Mary Bunting Institute there, which is an institute designed to make it possible for women to resume their scientific careers after they’ve had a break for family reasons. She told me—I called her at one point to verify this because I mentioned this at some meeting, and I think I talked about it at the phage meeting in ’95—and she verified the fact and she said she would never have gone back to work if not for Luria’s having dug her out. Yes, it really shows things about Luria that I’m not sure are known. One is that he’s—he takes it for granted that men and women are equal. It didn’t occur to him that there’s a reason why she shouldn’t be there. And he also is very generous scientifically. He wanted her to have the credit for doing the first real genetics in bacteria.

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.