Kary B. Mullis Biography


Birthday: December 28, 1944 (Capricorn)

Born In: Lenoir, North Carolina, United States

Kary B. Mullis was an American biochemist, author, and lecturer who won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993, for his role in the improvement of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. He was also awarded the Japan Prize the same year. His contribution to the PCR technique helped to make the technique a central one in biochemistry and molecular biology. An outspoken individual, he invited much criticism for his defense of AIDS denialism and climate change denial, and his unorthodox views on social sciences. Born into a family with a farming background, he was raised in a rural area and grew up observing the farm animals and other organisms. He became interested in chemistry as a young boy and proceeded to earn a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. After getting his PhD degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, he became a postdoctoral fellow in pediatric cardiology at the University of Kansas Medical School and then completed two years of postdoctoral work in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco. He tried his hands at different occupations before joining Cetus Corporation in California as a DNA chemist. It was here that he performed his breakthrough work that led to his improvement of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Kary Banks Mullis

Died At Age: 74


Spouse/Ex-: Nancy Cosgrove Mullis

Born Country: United States

Biochemists American Men

Died on: August 7, 2019

place of death: Newport Beach, California, U.S.

U.S. State: North Carolina

More Facts

awards: 1993 - Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Japan Prize
1991 - Gairdner Foundation International Award

1991 - John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium
1992 - Robert Koch Prize
1990 - William Allan Award

Childhood & Early Life
Kary Banks Mullis was born on December 28, 1944, in Lenoir, North Carolina, to Cecil Banks Mullis and Bernice Alberta Barker. Theirs was a loving family and he grew up to be very close to his grandparents. His family had a farming background and he liked to observe the farm animals and other living organisms.

He attended Dreher High School where he developed an interest in chemistry. Later on he went to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta from where he earned a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in chemistry in 1966. 

He then proceeded to the University of California, Berkeley, for his graduate work and performed research work in J. B. Neilands' laboratory where he focused on synthesis and structure of bacterial iron transporter molecules. He completed his PhD in 1972, and lectured in biochemistry there until 1973.

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Kary B. Mullis then became a postdoctoral fellow in pediatric cardiology at the University of Kansas Medical School where he focused on the areas of angiotensin and pulmonary vascular physiology. In 1977, he began two years of postdoctoral work in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco.
In between, he gave a thought to abandoning his career in science and managed a bakery for two years. His friend Thomas White, however, encouraged him to return to science.

In 1979, he joined the biotechnology company Cetus Corporation of Emeryville, California, as a DNA chemist. It was there that he began his seminal work on oligonucleotide synthesis that led to his improvements to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

During that time, the available methods for obtaining a specific sequence of DNA in quantities sufficient for study were not only very difficult, but also time-consuming and expensive. In 1983, Mullis developed his method of PCR by making improvements to the previously known methods.
His technique which multiplies a single, microscopic strand of the genetic material billions of times within hours is of high significance to the scientific fraternity and is considered one of the biggest scientific techniques of the 20th century. The PCR process has multiple applications in medicine, genetics, biotechnology, and forensics.

From 1986 to 1988, he was director of molecular biology for Xytronyx Inc. in San Diego where his work was concentrated in DNA technology and photochemistry. Around this time he also began consulting on nucleic acid chemistry for more than a dozen corporations, including Angenics, Cytometrics, Eastman Kodak, Abbott Labs, Milligen/Biosearch, and Specialty Laboratories.

In 1992, he founded a business with the intent of selling pieces of jewelry containing the amplified DNA of deceased celebrities like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

Mullis served on the board of scientific advisors of several companies and provided expert advice in legal matters involving DNA. He was also a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival's Advisory Board. He used to take lectures frequently at college campuses and attended academic meetings around the world.

Major Works

Kary B. Mullis is known for the development of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique used in molecular biology to amplify a single copy or a few copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude. This is a very important technique used in medical and biological research labs for a variety of applications.

Awards & Achievements
Prior to winning the Nobel Prize, he had been honored with William Allan Memorial Award of the American Society of Human Genetics (1990), the Preis Biochemische Analytik of the German Society of Clinical Chemistry and Boehringer Mannheim (1990) and California Scientist of the Year Award (1992).

Kary B. Mullis was awarded one-half of the Nobel Prize in 1993, "for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method" and the other half went to Michael Smith "for his fundamental contributions to the establishment of oligonucleotide-based, site-directed mutagenesis and its development for protein studies."

In 1993, he was also presented with the Japan Prize for the development of the polymerase chain reaction.

Personal Life, Legacy & Death

Kary B. Mullis married four times and had three children. He was married to Nancy Cosgrove at the time of his death. He had two grandchildren.

He enjoyed writing and surfing.


Kary B. Mullis died from complications of pneumonia, on August 7, 2019. He was 74.

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