display | more...
B. December 28, 1944
Nobel Prize, Chemistry, 1993
with Michael Smith

Kary Banks Mullis was born to parents Cecil Banks Mullis and Bernice Alberta Barker Mullis in rural North Carolina. For the first few years of his life, he and his family lived near his maternal grandparents' farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The family later moved to the vicinity of Columbia, South Carolina, where Kary went to high school. He received his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Georgia Tech, where he met and married his first wife, Richards. During his career at Georgia Tech, his wife bore him a daughter, Louise.

Mullis and company moved to Berkeley, California, in 1966, with Kary in pursuit of his Ph.D. in biochemistry (1972) under the tutelage of J.B. Neilands, now a distinguished professor emeritus of the University of California. After receiving his degree, he lectured on biochemistry at U Cal Berkeley for a year. From 1973 to 1977, Mullis held a postdoctoral fellowship in pediatric cardiology at the University of Kansas Medical School. He didn't really make the jump to molecular work until a 2-year stint at the University of California at San Francisco as a postdoc in pharmaceutical chemistry.

(At some point, presumably, he left his first wife. I haven't come across any sources saying where or when, but I'd put money on it being during his LSD-using Berkeley PhD days.)

He went to the Cetus Corporation in 1979 as a DNA chemist. At Cetus, he spent much of his time working on oligonucleotide synthesis, and, being a big fan of automation and general laziness, he developed a method of automated synthesis for his lab. He also met his second wife, Cynthia, while working in Kansas (presumably for Cetus, but I can't find a source either way); she later bore him two sons, Christopher and Jeremy. He left her in 1981.

The short version of how PCR was born:

"I was working for Cetus, making oligonucleotides. They were heady times. Biotechnology was in flower and one spring night while the California buckeyes were also in flower I came across the polymerase chain reaction. I was driving with Jennifer Barnett to a cabin I had been building in northern California. She and I had worked and lived together for two years. She was an inspiration to me during that time as only a woman with brains, in the bloom of her womanhood, can be. That morning she had no idea what had just happened. I had an inkling. It was the first day of the rest of my life." (1)
Jennifer, incidentally, was his girlfriend at the time. She stayed with him from 1981 until shortly before the completion of the PCR project in 1983. Meanwhile, the development of PCR continued at Cetus Corporation through 1983, and upon its completion, he received a $10K bonus from the company.

Mullis left the Cetus Corporation in 1986, not long after completing the development of PCR technology. He was apparently rather dissatisfied with his compensation for his invention, as he comments in his Nobel lecture. That year, he joined Xyclonyx Corporation, a plastics company, as their director of molecular biology; he left the position after only 2 years. However, at Xyclonyx, he developed and patented a UV-sensitive plastic that changes color in response to light.

In 1993, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Michael Smith (1932-2000, from Canada) for their "contributions to the developments of methods within DNA-based chemistry". (9) Michael Smith performed mounds of work on site-directed mutagenesis, especially relating to protein studies. Also in 1993, Mullis received the Japan Prize, a prestigious international science award, for his invention. (Other awards he has received include the following: Thomas A. Edison Award (1993); California Scientist of the Year Award (1992); the Gairdner Award (1991); the R&D Scientist of the Year (1991); the William Allen Memorial Award (1990); and the Preis Biochemische Analytik (1990).) Mullis was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Science from the University of South Carolina in 1994, and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1998.

Mullis now lives in an apartment across from a popular surfing spot in La Jolla, California. His income mostly stems from book royalties and from consulting and lecturing on biotechnology and on the features and flaws of the scientific method. He recently married yet again, this time to a woman named Nancy Cosgrove (1998).

Most scientists, both in industry and in academia, have a very low opinion of Kary Mullis; he has a reputation as a bizarre, inconsistent person prone to outlandish and frequently incorrect ideas. People often consider PCR the only thing Mullis ever got right. For example, he was one of few proponents of the theory that HIV did not cause AIDS (he appears to think it's a corporate money-making conspiracy of the CDC and local health departments). His reputation was also damaged by well-documented use of LSD and other mind-altering chemicals. In fact, much of his career as a chemist was spent making new and improved mind-altering derivatives of other mind-altering substances -- that is, until the entire family of drugs was placed on the Schedule of Controlled Substances.

A phenomenal account of his misgivings and wacky brain-evaporating theories can be found in his Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, published by Pantheon Books. In the book, Mullis describes possible alien encounters as well as his theories on everything from global warming and the ozone layer to psychokinesis. Needless to say, such off-the-wall, unfounded theories are looked upon rather poorly by the scientific community -- to the point where he's begun offering to accept payment for failing to appear at gatherings of the scientific community.

The fate of the PCR patent, however, was much more fortuitous. The Cetus Corporation went defunct in 1991; the patent was bought by Hoffman-LaRoche for $300 million, the most money ever paid for a single patent. HLR is now a multi-billion-dollar company, with a decent chunk of the income from its Diagnostics division stemming from technology and diagnostic systems using PCR and royalties from other companies selling PCR-related products.

PCR, as a technological advance, has proved absolutely invaluable as a research tool. Indeed, without PCR, gene sequencing would prove a daunting and miserable task. Complete genome sequencing would not even be possible, let alone plausible. (Just imagine sequencing an entire 3-billion-base-pair genome using only Sanger sequencing. Your gel would be a mile long!) In the 17 years since its inception, PCR has developed from an esoteric conceptual fantasy to a fundamental and indispensable mechanism of genetic manipulation and determination.

  1. Kary Mullis waxes eloquent about his very dull childhood and skips over most of the rest of his life:
  2. mostly pointless details about his life:
  3. Complete with PCR for beginners:
  4. Book summary: http://www.any-book.com/mine_field.htm
  5. Hooray for encyclopedias: http://www.britannica.com/nobel/micro/409_50.html
  6. the aftermath of a Kary Mullis lecture:
  7. Nobel prize lecture excerpt: http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1993/mullis-lecture.html
  8. Google cached page: http://library.thinkquest.org/24355/data/light/details/profiles/mullis.html
  9. For Michael Smith: http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1993/
  10. helpful with dates: http://www.burstein.com/kmullis.htm
  11. Identical to #1, but with an addendum: http://www.cartage.org.lb/en/themes/Biographies/MainBiographies/M/Mullis/Mullis.htm
  12. http://www.karymullis.com/
  13. KARY MULLIS USES DRUGS: http://www.csp.org/chrestomathy/dancing_naked.html