Nobel Laureate, Kary Mullis, dies age 74

Written by Lauren Woolfe

Kary Mullis died on August 7th 2019, from pneumonia. The 1993 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry, who received the award for the invention of the Polymerase chain reaction (PCR), was 74 years old.

Kary Mullis was born in 1944, rural North Carolina (USA). Mullis obtained a chemistry degree from Georgia Tech (GA, USA) and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California (CA, USA).  In the early 80s he began his career at the biotechnology company Cetus Corp in Emeryville (CA, USA).

Science and Nature rejected the original manuscript that documented the PCR process, which was eventually published in Methods in Enzymology. Mullis won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in 1993, for inventing PCR. In The Scientist in 2003, Mullis described his first attempt at PCR as “a long shot experiment,” but it really did pay off. It is now one of the most widely used methods in forensics and biomedical research.

Mullis was known as an ‘eccentric character’ with some controversial views, such as his belief in astrology, denial of global warming and his opposition to the evidence that HIV is the cause of AIDS.  A former colleague, Kirston Koths, described him as “a freewheeling thinker” and stated that, “some of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had in my life have been with Kary over a gin and tonic. He has an ability to make unusual connections.”

After his Nobel Prize win, he founded a company called Altermune with the intention of developing a therapeutic to redeploy existing endogenous antibodies against new or drug-resistant pathogens.

“The rest of my life has passed quite suddenly. Around ten or twelve I fell into the inevitable logarithms of time. It seems to go faster and faster” (Mullis, 1994).

Mullis leaves behind a wife, Nancy, three children and two grandchildren.