Evelyn Witkin, a pioneering geneticist who established the existence of the DNA damage response in bacteria and delineated its basic features, has passed away at age 102. Witkin’s discovery of a mechanism that protects the bacterial genome paved the way for later scientific investigations concerning the DNA damage response in eukaryotic organisms. Witkin’s pathbreaking research in bacterial genetics was honored with the 2015 Lasker Basic Medical Research Award alongside Stephen Elledge, who worked out the details of how eukaryotic cells respond to DNA damage.

Witkin embarked upon a serious pursuit of genetics in the 1940s, a time when there were few opportunities for women to advance in science. Even as she forged a path for women, she advocated for the rights of all citizens to participate fully in academic life. Notably, Witkin helped lead a protest against her undergraduate alma mater, New York University, for not allowing its black athletes to play in games that were held at colleges in the South, at the request of those colleges. She had intended to stay at NYU for graduate studies, but the school revoked her position (she went to Columbia instead). Witkin was an emerita professor at Rutgers University at the time of her death; after her retirement from science, she pursued another great academic interest—poetry, with a particular focus on the great Victorian poet Robert Browning.

Listen to Evelyn Witkin discuss her life in science