‘A wide-open person’: UC Berkeley graduate, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis dies at 74

Eccentric UC Berkeley graduate and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis, famous for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, died Aug. 7 at the age of 74. 

According to his wife Nancy Mullis, Kary Mullis died unexpectedly of heart and respiratory failure in their home in Newport Beach, California. Kary Mullis earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology and his doctorate in biochemistry from UC Berkeley. He is credited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards several of the Nobel Prizes, with “open(ing) the way for new applications in medicine and biotechnology.”  

“He was the treasure entrusted to my care,” Nancy Mullis said. “He was really unique and was amazing, and I was lucky to be his constant companion for 22 years.”

Nancy Mullis described her husband as “young at heart” at every age and as a scientist who did not see boundaries. Kary Mullis was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his invention of PCR — which he described on his website as a method of multiplying single strands of DNA billions of times within hours. PCR revolutionized the field of genetics and was the foundation of the discipline of paleobiology.

Kary Mullis was working at Cetus Corporation in Emeryville, California, as a DNA chemist when he invented PCR in 1983, according to his website. Nancy Mullis described him as someone who “loved discovery” and “wasn’t following the money.” In fact, his career-defining invention was a result of his work to increase job stability in the laboratory despite tasks becoming increasingly automated. 

When Mullis had his “eureka” moment in discovering PCR, he knew that if his design worked, he had secured his lab colleagues’ jobs and would be awarded the Nobel Prize, Nancy Mullis said.

“I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning I bought two bottles of Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir, and by mid afternoon had settled into a fitful sleep,” Kary Mullis said on his website. “There were diagrams of PCR recreations on every surface that would take pencil or crayon in my cabin. I woke up in a new world.”

Kary Mullis also authored several patents, consulted on nucleic acid chemistry for more than a dozen corporations and was a “lecturer at college campuses, corporations and academic meetings around the world,” according to his website. He was also known for his use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and for his controversial views on climate change and AIDS. 

Kary Mullis is survived by his wife, three children and two grandchildren.

“(Kary Mullis) was larger than life,” Nancy Mullis said. “He was a wide-open person.”

Emily Hom is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hom_emily.