Evelyn Maisel Witkin was born in New York City on March 9, 1921. She was awarded her Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, Majoring in Zoology, in 1941. Witkin began her graduate studies with Theodosium Dobzhansky at Columbia University. Her interests changed 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 was awarded her Ph.D. in 1947 and remained at the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Genetics until 1955. She them moved to the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. In 1971 she was appointed Professor of Biology Sciences at Douglass College, Rutgers University, where she was named Barbara McClintock Professor of Genetics in 1979. Witkin moved to the Waksman Institute at Rutgers University in 1983, becoming Barbara McClintock Professor Emerita in 1991.
Witkin's research since the completion of her PhD was based on DNA mutagenesis, her mutagenesis work led to her work on DNA repair. By characterizing the phenotypes of mutagenized E. coli, she and colleague Miroslav Radman (at the time a post-doctoral student at Harvard) detailed the SOS response to UV radiation in bacteria in the early 1970s. She continued to work on the mechanism of the SOS response until she retired in 1991. The SOS response to DNA damage was a seminal discovery because it was the first coordinated stress response to be elucidated.
Among her many awards are membership in the National Academy of Sciences (1977); Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (1980); American Women of Science Award for Outstand Research; and Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology. In 2000 she was awarded the 2000 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Science from President George W. Bush in 2002 for her work on mutagenesis and DNA repair, and “For her insightful and pioneering investigations on the genetics of DNA mutagenesis and DNA repair that have increased our understanding of processes as varied as evolution and the development of cancer.”