Evelyn M. Witkin, whose discovery of the DNA repair process itself opened the door to major advances in the treatment of cancer and genetic defects, died Saturday in Plainsboro Township, New Jersey.
Her son, Joseph, said she died in a rehab facility from complications from a fall.
In a career that began at the dawn of modern genetic research in the late 1940s, Dr. Witkin explored the ways in which radiation damages DNA and creates a repair machinery, which she calls the SOS response.
The repair machinery produces an enzyme that, in turn, creates replacement parts for the damaged DNA. But it is an imperfect process that can sometimes lead to slightly different versions or mutations – what scientists call mutants.
Her insights into the SOS response, which Dr. Witkin developed with Miroslav Radman, a scientist at the Free University of Brussels, has shed new light on how solar radiation and chemicals in the environment affect our genetic makeup.
“I discovered the first coordinated stress response in cells,” Joanne Swayze, a University of Arizona geneticist who studied under Dr. Witkin, said in a phone interview. “And that’s very important for understanding evolution, for understanding mutations in terms of tumorigenesis.”
Dr. Witkin was still a graduate student at Columbia University when she spent the summer of 1944 working in the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on the north shore of Long Island. Despite having no background in microbiology — her research until then had been with fruit flies — on her first day there she was tasked with mutating E. coli cultures.
Several were placed under a germicidal ultraviolet lamp. Almost all of them died. But four colonies survived.
At this point, I asked, ‘Why did they survive? Perhaps the mutation has made them resistant, Dr. Witkin told The New York Times in 2016.
This single question began nearly half a century of research for Dr. Witkin, first at Cold Spring Harbor and then at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in Brooklyn, and finally at Rutgers University, where she worked. From 1971 until his retirement in 1991.
She won the National Medal of Science a few years later, in 2002, but the high point of her career came in 2015, when she and another geneticist, Stephen J. Medical sciences after the Nobel Prize.
“She had a remarkable ability to look at basic biological questions,” Donna George, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania who studied under Dr. Witkin, said by phone. “The basic principles of her ideas have been validated, sometimes decades later, by the development of new experimental techniques and molecular probes.”
Evelyn Ruth Maisel was born on March 9, 1921, in Manhattan. Her father, Joseph, was a pharmacist and died when Evelyn was three years old. Her mother, Manya (Levin) Maisel, married Jacob Bersin, another pharmacist, who moved the family to Forest Hills, Queens.
Evelyn attended New York public schools and studied zoology at New York University. During her senior year, she joined a group of students who were protesting the university’s policy of hiring black athletes whenever its athletic teams played opponents from segregated schools.
They rallied around the case of black football player, Leonard Bates, who was slated to fall behind when the team traveled to the University of Missouri. They collected 4,000 names in a petition to be allowed to play, and organized 2,000 students to protest outside the Central Administration Building.
“No Missouri Settlement!” they exclaimed. “Let Bates play!”
Mr. Bates did not play—against Missouri or, later, against other separate teams. Other black athletes have faced similar discrimination. The protests continued throughout the academic year, until the university ended it by suspending seven of the movement’s leaders, including Evelyn.
She had planned to continue doing graduate work at NYU, but now, having also lost her graduate assistantship as punishment, she set her sights on Columbia. I graduated from New York University in the fall of 1941 and immediately went uptown to start my PhD.
“Going to Colombia was the greatest blessing that ever happened to me on a professional level,” he said. She told the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation in 2016. Not sure she was a National Medal of Science recipient, she said, “If NYU hadn’t decided I was a bad girl in 1941.”
She was already interested in genes, especially in the theory espoused by Russian scientist Trofim Lysenko which denied their existence and insisted that environment shaped evolution.
At Columbia, I worked with a Russian-born researcher, Theodosius Dobzhansky, who is considered the founder of evolutionary genetics. Not only did he rid her of Dr. Lysenko’s thoughts; He also submitted it to a paper by Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück proving that bacteria have DNA.
“While reporting on it for Dobzhansky’s class, I jumped up and down with excitement,” she told The Times. At the time, one of the big questions was how genetic mutations came about. Thanks to Luria and Delbrück, I’ve now seen how we can use bacteria models to answer that.”
She married Hermann Witkin, a psychiatrist, in 1943. He died in 2012. Together with her son Joseph, a physician and founding member of the rock and roll group Sha Na Na, she is survived by five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Another son, Andrew, died in 2010.
Dr. Witkin remained in Cold Spring Harbor until 1955, when she transferred to SUNY Downstate. She later joined the faculty of Douglas College, at that time an all-female institution attached to Rutgers. In 1983 she became director of the Waxman Institute of Microbiology, also at Rutgers, where she remained until her retirement.
In 2021, on her 100th birthday, the Waxman Institute renames one of its major research laboratories for her.