Kary B. Mullis

In July 2023, we changed our name from AACC (short for the American Association for Clinical Chemistry) to the Association for Diagnostics & Laboratory Medicine (ADLM). The following page was written prior to this rebranding and contains mentions of the association’s old name. It may contain other out-of-date information as well.

Kary Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Michael Smith. Mullis was honored for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method and Smith was recognized for his fundamental contributions to the establishment of oligonuleoitide-based, site directed mutagenesis and its development for protein studies.

The following award announcement appeared in Clinical Chemistry for the AACC award to Mullis:

1993 Outstanding Contributions in a Selected Area of Research

Kary B. Mullis will receive the 21st annual award, sponsored by Roche Diagnostic Systems. He sent the following biographical sketch to AACC:

I have failed to embrace any particular scientific discipline for very long and consider myself a generalist with a chemical prejudice.

My first summer after high school I had the good fortune of working for a remarkable storyteller, Max Gergel, who made and sold research chemicals at his company, Columbia Organic Chemicals, and eventually wrote a sort of autobiography, which he called “Excuse Me, Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?” I learned a lot about organic chemicals that summer.

At Georgia Tech I studied chemistry and physics, wrote fiction for the humor magazine, and married Richards, who soon bore Louise. In the summer, with my friend Al Montgomery, I learned to synthesize organic chemicals at Kings Laboratories, which, with encouragement from Max, we had founded in a chicken house belonging to Al’s brother-in-law. In 1966 I left our fledging business, which survived, for graduate school and the cultural revolution in progress at the University of California–Berkeley.

I had more fun at Berkeley than anyone on an NIH stipend deserves, and learned a number of things, in addition to the biochemistry of iron, from the gentle wisdom of Professor J. B. Neilands. After 6 years I reluctantly took my Ph.D. and left, following my second wife back to her home and medical school in Kansas, where, after failing for 3 months to write a best-selling novel, I returned to science. I found a research position in the Pediatric Cardiology Department at Kansas University with Leone Mattioli and Richard Zakheim. We collaborated with pathologist Agostino Molteni, and the four of us had a cordial and productive 2 years working on idiopathic respiratory distress syndrome. They were all three good doctors and equally nice men. I returned to California in 1975 with fond memories, the rudiments of medicine, and a distaste for the experimental killing of rodents. Cynthia, my third wife-to-be, was with me.

I left science temporarily and we took a job together washing dishes in a Berkeley restaurant owned by my first wife Richards. I wanted to take up writing seriously. We lived in a cottage across the fence from where my daughter Louise, now 10, lived with Richards and her new husband. First and third wives usually get along, and life at the restaurant was very social. It was nice being back in Berkeley. Cynthia encouraged me to write. Our marriage produced Christopher and then Jeremy. I published a short story in Medical Dimensions but, deciding that I was too young to write good fiction, I went back to killing rats, this time in the name of neurochemistry with Wolfgang Sadee at the University of California–San Francisco.

From there in 1979 I went to Cetus, returning to synthetic chemistry, which I had always enjoyed. My lab made oligonucleotides for use in the heady new business of molecular cloning. Finally that got easier and more boring and I started thinking up things to do with them. I invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It was the first day of the rest of my life. Things happened slowly at first but with an accelerating pace. I left Cetus in the fall of 1986.

At Cold Spring Harbor, where I had presented PCR to Jim Watson’s Symposium on the Molecular Biology of Homo sapiens in June 1986, I had met Tom Caskey, whose lab at Baylor would take a leading role in the development of PCR as a clinical diagnostic tool. Neither of us realized until several months later that we had attended the same high school in Columbia, SC. That fall, Tom introduced me to Peter Baram in San Diego, who had started a small biotech company called Xytronyx, and I took a job as his director of molecular biology.

San Diego was a good move. Biotechnology companies and research institutions are abundant, the weather is nice, and the people are friendly, but Xytronyx was too limited to hold my interest long. With PCR becoming widespread, I discovered I could make a living as a consultant. Invitations to speak at meetings started coming in rapidly, and the more I traveled, the more clients I found. So things have worked out.

My first scientific paper, while a graduate student in biochemistry at Berkeley, was an amateurish cosmological theory entitled “The cosmological significance of time reversal,” which I persuaded Nature to publish in 1968. Ironically, in 1985, Nature was not persuaded to publish my original manuscript on PCR, noting that “it might be more appropriately published in a more specialized journal.” A month later, Science was equally unimpressed with my invention of PCR, lamenting that “the paper could not compete for our limited space.” It was a good paper though, and Ray Wu accepted it for Methods in Enzymology.

Photography, computers, surfing, and a house and garden in rural Mendocino County are my major nonscientific distractions today, although writing is still on my mind and a science fiction novel is cooking slowly on my back burner. None of my three marriages is current; but my children, now 12, 16, and 28, are a big part of my life, and I am on good terms with my former wives. I live in a beachfront apartment in La Jolla with Heidi.