I Get a Kill: Nobel-Prize Winning Chemist Kary Mullis @ 74
Kary Banks Mullis, an eccentric Berkeley-educated surfer who was nearly as famous for his use of psychedelic drugs and unorthodox views as he was for developing a DNA replication technique that won him the Nobel Prize, has died.
Mullis, a biochemist whose antics, including climate change denial and some seemingly harebrained business ventures, prompted fellow researchers to call him the “untamed genius,” died Wednesday at his home in Newport Beach (Orange County). He was 74.
Born to a farming family in North Carolina on Dec. 28, 1944, Mullis was interested in chemistry and science at an early age. At age 17, he strapped a frog onto a rocket fueled by a combination of potassium and sugar, shot it into the air and brought it down safely with a parachute.
He received a bachelor of science degree from Georgia Tech in 1966 and a doctorate in biochemistry at UC Berkeley in 1973. But it took him a while to settle. He got married, had children, tried his hand at fiction writing and ran a bakery before he eventually became a chemist specializing in DNA at the Cetus Corp., in Emeryville.
Mullis later admitted the work bored him, and so he was playing around with ideas when, in 1983, he got the idea to copy DNA sequences and replicate them. Known as the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR technique, his discovery allowed molecular biologists to create millions of copies of a single strand of DNA in a few hours.
The technique revolutionized medical and forensic science and was the key to the eventual mapping of the human genome. It inspired the notion that a dinosaur could be cloned from fossilized DNA, the basis for the movie “Jurassic Park.”
Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993 and after that founded some biotech companies, including StarGene, a San Rafael company that made jewelry infused with the DNA of famous people.
He told The Chronicle in 1995 that he got the idea in New Orleans, where people were reporting ghostly sightings of the late singer Elvis Presley. He said he decided then to begin harvesting the hair, skin, blood and even the toenails of Elvis and other dead celebrities and infuse the DNA into products, thereby bringing fans closer to their heroes.
StarGene at one point had an arrangement with University Archives in Stamford, Conn., which housed locks of hair from, among others, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and Presley.
Mullis was an avid surfer who had an apartment in La Jolla (San Diego County) and a house in Mendocino County he called the Institute for Further Study, where he was apt to invite guests into his hot tub to look at the cosmos and discuss astrology.
He admitted to taking LSD, which he said helped the thought process, and questioned climate change science and the notion that HIV virus causes AIDS. He was said to have once gotten into a midnight fistfight on a beach with a fellow scientist.
Mullis was scheduled to testify as a defense witness during the O.J. Simpson trial, but then prosecutors filed a brief that apparently made Simpson’s lawyers rethink the strategy.
“Aspects of his personal and professional life have caused many members of the scientific community to disregard his opinions about forensic PCR applications,” wrote prosecutor Rockne Harmon, mentioning Mullis’ drug use and controversial opinions about AIDS and other subjects. “The prosecution is fully prepared to cross-examine Mullis on every aspect of his life which reflects on his credibility, competency and sobriety. ... This should prove to be a lively event!”
Mullis, who was married and divorced three times, lived the past 22 years with his wife, Nancy Mullis. He is survived by his wife, three children and two grandchildren. https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Kary-Mullis-eccentric-Berkley-educated-chemistry-14295768.php?psid=hbgja