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Nobel Prize-winning chemist who grew up in SC capital dies at 74

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Nobel Prize-winning scientist Kary Mullis in 1995. File/AP

Kary Banks Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize for chemistry, died Wednesday in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 74.

Born Dec. 28, 1944, in Hickory, N.C., Mullis was the son of Cecil B. Mullis and Bernice Alberta Barker Mullis. The family moved to Columbia when he was 5 years old. He graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1966 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, and received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972.

Mullis began working as a DNA chemist for Cetus Corp. in Emeryville, Calif., in 1979. He invented the Polymerase Chain Reaction in 1983, which won him the Nobel Prize for chemistry 10 years later. This method made it possible to replicate tiny amounts of DNA, revolutionizing biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, forensics and medicine.

A 1998 New York Times article called the invention "highly original and significant, virtually dividing biology into the two epochs of before PCR and after PCR."

“I was playing,” Mullis said in a 1993 Post and Courier story. “I think really good science doesn’t come from hard work. The striking advances come from people on the fringes, being playful.”

That same article characterized him as “a man who quit the lab to work in a restaurant, a man who had a midnight brawl on a beach with a fellow researcher, a man who elicits both giggles and awe from other scientists.”

The procedure almost led to him to be called as an expert witness in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in 1995. However, a 1998 Washington Post article explained, “Simpson's lawyers decided against calling Mullis as a witness, afraid that prosecution lawyers would use his much-publicized acid adventures to portray him as a raving nut.”

After winning the Nobel Prize, Mullis founded and advised several biotech companies, the quirkiest being one that would sell bits of celebrity DNA in things like trading cards and jewelry. His various awards include an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of South Carolina in 1994. Mullis also wrote a humorous autobiography, “Dancing Naked in the Mind Field,” in 1998.

Surviving are his wife, Nancy Cosgrove Mullis; children, Christopher Mullis, Jeremy Mullis, and Louise Olsen; and grandchildren, Georgia Sheppard and Thelonious Mullis.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by The Omega Society of Orange, Calif.

Reach Debbie Clark at 843-937-5581 and follow her at @dlcdolphin

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