South Carolina

Dreher High School grad who revolutionized DNA has died

Kary Mullis
Kary Mullis

Kary Mullis, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who graduated from Columbia’s Dreher High School, died Wednesday at the age of 74.

Mullis was famous for developing the technique for amplifying DNA, a discovery that both made it possible for police to use DNA evidence against criminals and inspired the idea of cloning dinosaurs from fossilized DNA in the movie “Jurassic Park.”

Born in Lenoir, N.C., on Dec. 28, 1944, Mullis grew up in Columbia and graduated from Dreher High School in 1962. There he developed an interest in chemistry building rockets in his backyard, for which he synthesized the fuel.

He received a bachelor of science degree from Georgia Tech in 1966, and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California in 1973. Mullis then went on to become a DNA chemist for the biotechnology firm Cetus.

In 1983, Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), making it possible to replicate minuscule amounts of DNA into unlimited quantities. Using the technique, scientists can create millions of copies of a single, microscopic strand of DNA within hours.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is going to make me a famous guy, if it works,’” Mullis told The State in 1993.

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The discovery revolutionized fields from molecular biology to medicine, and eventually led to the mapping of the human genome.

The New York Times wrote that Mullis’s breakthrough divided biology “into the two epochs of before PCR and after PCR.” In 1993, Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

He went on to found a number of biotech companies, and served as a scientific adviser for several more. He provided expert legal advice on DNA, was a frequent lecturer on college campuses, and wracked up scientific patents.

For the last 22 years of his life, Mullis lived with his wife Nancy Mullis in Newport Beach, Calif.

“He was the treasure that was entrusted to my care,” Nancy Mullis told The State Friday. “I told him that over and over, and he loved to hear it... He just needed to be left alone to study science and think, and I took care of everything else.”

After receiving the Nobel Prize, Mullis once told the New York Times, “I’ve become more or less directed by my own wants and not by what somebody else might be thinking. I’m not considering that now I need to do something bigger and better. PCR was a singularity in my life.”

He was criticized for claims made in his 1998 autobiography “Dancing Naked in the Mind Field,” in which he disagreed with scientific evidence supporting climate change and evidence that HIV causes AIDS, and expressed his belief in astrology.

Mullis was known as much for his whimsical nature as his intellect. He lived much of his life in California, where he was an avid surfer. In 1994, he told California Monthly, “Back in the 1960s and early ‘70s I took plenty of LSD. A lot of people were doing that in Berkeley back then... It was certainly much more important than any courses I ever took.”

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

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.