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Kary Mullis, quirky Nobel laureate whose DNA discovery changed the science world, dies

Dorany Pineda, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Kary B. Mullis was an LSD-dropping, climate-change-denying, astrology-believing, board-surfing, Nobel Prize-winning chemist who was both widely respected and equally criticized for his controversial views.

Deemed an "untamed genius" by fellow researchers, Mullis shared a 1993 Nobel for developing a technique called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, that allowed scientists to create millions of copies of a single DNA molecule.

It was hailed as one of the most important scientific inventions of the 20th century; a discovery that -- among countless other applications and research -- gave scientists the ability to study DNA from a 40,000-year-old frozen mammoth and helped investigators take tiny amounts of DNA to identify or exonerate crime suspects. It's the technique that Hollywood used to revive dinosaurs from fossilized DNA in the 1993 movie "Jurassic Park."

Mullis died Aug. 7 in his Newport Beach, Calif., home from heart and respiratory failure, said his wife, Nancy Cosgrove Mullis. He was 74.

An offbeat, chatty, restless and unconventional chemist, Mullis defied the stereotype of the Nobel Prize winner. He was drunk the morning he won the prestigious prize, he once admitted, and in response to the news, went surfing near his San Diego apartment.

Acclaimed as his technique was, Mullis was highly criticized for other theories, notably his suggestion that HIV did not cause AIDS, which he once wrote was "one hell of a mistake." It was a notion that cost him some credibility among his scientific peers, as did his conviction that global warming was a hoax and that ozone damage was an illusion.

 

"He's a freewheeling thinker," Kirston Koths, a former colleague, told the San Jose Mercury News in 1999. "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."

Mullis was born Dec. 28, 1944 in Lenoir, N.C., to Cecil Banks Mullis, a furniture salesman, and Bernice Alberta Fredericks, a Realtor. The family moved to Columbia, S.C., when Mullis was a child.

He showed a keen interest in science and exploration at a young age. Once, in high school, he designed a rocket propelled by sugar and potassium that launched a frog 7,000 feet into the blue. The amphibian, attached to a parachute, returned to Earth unscathed.

"In another, we inadvertently frightened an airline pilot, who was preparing to land a DC-3 at Columbia airport. Our mistake," he said in his Nobel speech.

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