Kary Mullis, dead at 74

The guy who invented PCR has died. That’s an absolutely, utterly essential innovation that revolutionized molecular biology, but strangely, his death has gotten virtually no press. That link takes you to a newspaper that highlights the fact that he graduated from a local high school.

I guess that’s what happens when you make an important discovery, but spend the rest of your life in a drugged out haze, emerging now and then to defend astrology, or promote climate change denialism, or claim that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. It all just confirms that your discovery was a fortunate fluke.


  1. hemidactylus says

    I wonder if a glowing raccoon is now helping him find the way along his path to the afterlife. Kinda makes Pauling’s vitamin C advocacy look tame comparatively speaking.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    It all just confirms that your discovery was a fortunate fluke.

    That seems unnecessarily nasty, like you’re denying him any credit because of his later nonsensical positions. Humans can be like that: do something genuinely brilliant, then lose the plot.

    If Einstein had his 1905 papers published and had then fallen apart, for whatever reason, would you call those papers “fortunate flukes”?

  3. chrislawson says

    I think Kary Mullis not getting many obits is mostly because his discovery did not make him famous outside scientific circles. Unless you have some underlying knowledge of the field, it is hard to explain why PCR is so revolutionary and important. Check out The Scientist list of scientific greats who died in 2018. The only death that got any significant notice in the press was Stephen Hawking’s.

    Sure Mullins held some bizaare and unsavory beliefs, but then so did James Watson and he got plenty of attention when he died.

  4. PaulBC says

    Not to knock his accomplishment, but discovering one process doesn’t suggest a broad or deep understanding of anything else. I read his biography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field and got a sense of his priorities. I think the part that struck me most was his admitting to a serious injury related to nitrous oxide abuse and not expressing any particular regret about being such an idiot. He seemed to think it was funny. I’m not sure how to put it. He did not seem like a “serious” man. But it does go to show that the right kind of creativity can pay off in the right kind of circumstances. PCR is really important and useful. Someone else would have done it pretty soon I imagine, but Kary Mullis was first and kudos to him.

    On a similar note, Ben Carson was an innovative pediatric neurosurgeon. It is extremely hard for me to believe it now, but I have no reason to doubt it. Apparently, he was the first to suggest “hypothermic arrest, the deliberate lowering of body temperature” in brain surgery. He also believes the pyramids were Joseph’s biblical grain silos. Well, you don’t have to be right about everything. (It helps to know something about the cabinet position you hold, but I digress.)

  5. hemidactylus says

    I used the glowing raccoon because it’s cute and endearing. His genius may have been by thinking outside the box, but the same mode may have led to dangerous thoughts. Did he ever walk back the HIV denialism?

    Pauling had ascorbic acid megadosing, Crick had panspermia but also a second life in cognitive science. Susumu Tonegawa won the Nobel for immunology then shifted gears into memory research (LTP).

    PCR is a huge legacy, but Mullis had some issues otherwise. Some are fun like the raccoon legend, others more disturbing. But he did change the face of molecular biology which is commendable.

  6. PaulBC says

    Unless you have some underlying knowledge of the field, it is hard to explain why PCR is so revolutionary and important.

    As far as I know (not as an expert but someone who worked in biotech) you can’t begin to do gene sequencing or DNA testing without a cheap way to amplify DNA samples, so basically this process powers everything from reliable paternity testing to targeted cancer therapies. The Human Genome Project would have been impossible without it. People might not understand the process, but is it that hard to explain the impact?

    Of course, there is William Shockley, Nobel Laureate and notorious scientific racist who was a co-inventor of the transistor and also established the first semiconductor companies in Silicon Valley. Not a household name either, and not only because many of his potential promoters would be ashamed to mention his name. It’s an analogous case. You can at least explain the impact even if what he did precisely is harder to understand.

    “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” What else is there to conclude?

  7. cafebabe says

    Sadly, Mullis in not the only Nobel Laureate to crash and burn. Even in physics (shock, horror).

    Some, like William Shockley turned out to be racist assholes – although in Shockley’s case he was always one of those. Others, like Brian Josephson after whom the effect is named, did good science, then flipped out, invented “quantum mysticism”, supported para-psychology, water memory, cold fusion, and denied that HIV caused AIDS.

  8. hemidactylus says

    @7- PaulBC
    Actually I was thinking in positive terms of Crick’s and Tonegawa’s work in cognitive or neuroscience research fields, especially Tonegawa. Crick’s panspermia stuff was perhaps interesting but not dangerous. Megadosing on Vitamin C a la Pauling may not have a real effective point. Questioning that HIV leads to AIDS is bit more of an issue. Why get tested? If positive why take effective cocktails to attack the virus? Coming from a molecular biologist with a Nobel such doubts can be detrimental:


  9. nomadiq says

    Mullis made an engineering leap, not a scientific discovery. Others who used PCR made scientific discoveries. But PCR itself is engineering and a technique. Not a scientific discovery per se.

    I’m not discounting its significance. Or the genius paradigm shift it resulted in. Nor am I trying to tear down Mullis, the man. He did that himself. I just wonder if he ever realized what a one-hit-wonder he was. I know the TEDtalk lackey crowd around him never realized it.

  10. Matt G says

    If I had a dollar for every microliter of Taq I’ve pipetted….

    And nomadiq, you are spot on.

  11. cartomancer says

    Need I remind everyone that Sir Isaac Newton himself did most of his paradigm-shifting work in his 20s, then spent much of the rest of his life on gematria and bible mysticism?

  12. chrislawson says


    I’m not saying people can’t appreciate the many uses of PCR when described to them, but the inventor of the process is about as interesting to them as, say, the inventor of the spark plug (although there’s an interesting history there).

    With scientists like Hawking and Watson and Einstein, there’s usually some famous scientific principle that can be attached to their names: “black holes!” “the DNA helix!” “E=mc2!”.

    Most non-science people wouldn’t know what PCR does even in simple terms like “makes copies of DNA sequences”, and of those that do I bet only a small proportion knows what PCR stands for (even my students with biomedical degrees often don’t know!).

  13. says

    #3: so did James Watson and he got plenty of attention when he died

    Will get plenty of attention? Watson is still kicking around in senior curmudgeon mode, last I heard.

  14. whheydt says

    re: cafebabe @ #8…

    I associate Josephson with a junction, not an effect. That may be because I was an EECS major.

  15. chrislawson says


    Too true. Perhaps my biggest gripe with Mullis is he seized the Nobel opportunity to present himself as the Grand Inventor of PCR when in reality he was the person who came up with the last link in a long chain of scientific development. This is not to minimise the importance of making that link, but the Lone Genius school of science needs to die.

  16. chrislawson says


    Whoops. I think I was confusing him with Crick. You’re right. Watson is still alive. When he does shuffle off the mortal coil, he will be the subject of obituaries in every major news source in the world.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    cartomancer @12:

    Sir Isaac Newton himself did most of his paradigm-shifting work in his 20s

    1643: Newton born.
    1687: Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica published.

  18. petesh says

    @17: Somehow it’s always “Watson and Crick,” presumably because it’s rhythmically easier (Tum-ti-ti-tum), though I’ve always suspected that Crick was the more important talent (and not just because we went to the same school). Sadly, I learned from a woman who years ago was a friend of one of his daughters that Crick was in his own way a prick, making passes at his daughters’ friends being the least of it. Oh well. Watson would have had fabulous obituaries 15 years ago, now they are going to be, ah, tinged with regret at his fall from grace.

  19. PaulBC says


    Polymerase chain reaction (I could cheat easily but I didn’t and that’s right I think). A PCR was something else at Google and now I don’t remember what, but I think it involved bumping a job off a server. It annoyed me to hear the acronym thrown around when it wasn’t about DNA.

  20. PaulBC says

    …probably something like process change request or production change request. i am not a big fan of acronyms, especially when they collide with other acronyms. And I had worked in biotech before then.

  21. says

    @#4, PaulBC

    I think the part that struck me most was his admitting to a serious injury related to nitrous oxide abuse and not expressing any particular regret about being such an idiot. He seemed to think it was funny.

    I saw what you did there.

    @#18, Rob Grigjanis

    cartomancer @12:

    Sir Isaac Newton himself did most of his paradigm-shifting work in his 20s

    1643: Newton born.
    1687: Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica published.

    IIRC, Newton was notorious for not publishing things immediately, so your point fails in this instance.

  22. says

    Off-topic, but as both individuals have been discussed here over the years, you’ll be gratified (sic) to know that two of the most awful organisms from my part of the planet have apparently extended groping pseudopods towards one another, to fuse and merge, perhaps, in a symbiotic relationship, like a kind of transphobic lichen. Per the latest (vol. 37, No. 16, August 9-22, p.5) issue of The Phoenix¹ magazine:


    INTERESTING TO see Atheist Ireland (Al) founder and High Priest Michael Nugent lending his impressive intellectual ballast to yet another unpopular cause. Last week, Nugent sent social media into a spin by tweeting a picture from a recent lunch he had with Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan.

    Fans of Goldhawk will be well aware of Linehan’ s gradual retreat from comedy and his reinvention as a furious keyboard warrior and feminist, defending women from the scourge of transgender activism and offending liberal types in the process (see The Phoenix 25/1/19).

    If there’s one thing that grinds Nugent’s gears as much as organised religion, it’s PC types telling him what he can and can’t say and he poured forth on the subject in a 2016 article for Village magazine, which railed against the dogmatism of “authoritarian leftists.”

    It was hardly surprising then that Nugent has found common cause with Linehan. Last week, Saint Michael opined that his pal Graham is “still defending reason and women’s rights while retaining his integrity and sense of humour, in today’s volatile world of inverted ethical discourse.”

    Nugent’s own efforts in the defence of reason have seen him chart some interesting political waters over the years. In 2016, he rejected an invite to a 1916 centenary commemoration, denouncing the Volunteers as “an undemocratic group killing innocent people” and criticising the holding of the commemoration on the “Christian holiday of Easter” (see The Phoenix 8/5/16). That particular stance saw him come in for a torrent of criticism on the AI website from his fellow atheists.

    A former local election candidate for Fine Gael in the late 1990s, Nugent was once involved in the Peace Train, which organised against (mainly republican) violence in the North during the Troubles.

    Where will Nugent’s rationalism take him next?

    [Online article (paywalled)]

    The company of the Slymepit must not be generating the kind of plamás our Mickey feels like is his rightful due lately…

    ¹ Irish equivalent of Private Eye

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    The Vicar @22:

    IIRC, Newton was notorious for not publishing things immediately, so your point fails in this instance.

    Well, it fails if you or cartomancer can show that he sat on his work for well over a decade. That doesn’t seem to be the case if you look at the correspondence and meetings Newton had with Hooke and Halley. See here and here.

  24. PaulBC says

    It was always my understanding that Newton kept his science, alchemy, religious lunacy, and Royal Mint duties going on parallel tracks, but as far as I know he came up with calculus while young. Wikipedia backs that up. He would have been around 20.

    Many of Newton’s critical insights occurred during the plague years of 1665–1666[21] which he later described as, “the prime of my age for invention and minded mathematics and [natural] philosophy more than at any time since.” It was during his plague-induced isolation that the first written conception of fluxionary calculus was recorded in the unpublished De Analysi per Aequationes Numero Terminorum Infinitas.

    But he kept going after that on optics and laws of motion. I don’t know the chronology or where to find it summarized.

    I remember reading this letter somewhere that he wrote to Locke, and was happy to find it online. This is Newton at around 50 years old. It gives you a sense of the man, or maybe just of his times.

    “SIR, — Being of opinion that you endeavoured to embroil me with women, and by other means, I was so much affected with it, as that when one told me you were sickly and would not live, I answered, ’twere better if you were dead. I desire you to forgive me this uncharitableness; for I am now satisfied that what you have done is just, and I beg your pardon for my having hard thoughts of you for it, and for representing that you struck at the root of morality, in a principle you laid in your book of ideas, and designed to pursue in another book, and that I took you for a Hobbist.[1] I beg your pardon also for saying or thinking that there was a design to sell me an office, or to embroil me. — I am your most humble and unfortunate servant,

    “Is. NEWTON.

  25. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @26: He started work on his calculus (and planetary motion) in his early 20s. But there’s generally a lot of time and labour between “critical insight” and “paradigm-shifting work”. Einstein had his critical insight regarding general relativity in 1907, but it was another eight years before his field equations were published (in a race with David Hilbert).

  26. Reginald Selkirk says

    Another thing Newton was (in)famous for is protecting his reputation and suppressing his competitors, as with Leibniz’s role in co-inventing calculus.
    Charles Babbage, inventor of the computer, played a role in bringing the superior Leibniz notation to Britain, thus contributing to mathematical progress. Analytical Society

  27. Rob Grigjanis says

    Reginald Selkirk @28: Leibniz was hardly blameless in the dispute.

    In the words of Moritz Cantor, it “redounded to the discredit of all concerned.”


  28. nematoady says

    Kary Mullis may be forgotten by some, but his name will always be remembered in this classic Bio-Rad commercial:

    (It helps if you remember “We Are the World”)