Leon Miller, M.D., Ph.D.
Leon L. Miller, M.D., Ph.D. (M ’45), a scientist and physician who was part of the University of Rochester Medical Center for much of its history, died Sept. 3, at Highland Hospital in Rochester. He was 97.
Dr. Miller, who arrived at the Medical Center in 1938, was most recently professor emeritus of biochemistry and biophysics. A Rochester native and the son of immigrant parents, he earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and his doctorate in organic chemistry at Cornell University in 1934 and 1937, respectively.
Through his brother, the well-known conductor Mitch Miller, who died in August at the age of 99, Dr. Miller connected with a physician who put him in touch with George Hoyt Whipple, founding dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. In 1938, Dr. Miller joined Whipple’s laboratory as a post-doctoral research fellow, collaborating in studies of hemoglobin and plasma protein production.
Dr. Miller found himself working with young physicians, learning about medicine and enjoying it. He received permission from Whipple to study medicine while he continued the lab’s metabolism studies. Dr. Miller worked seven years while continuing his research studies in order to earn his medical degree in 1945. He practiced medicine before concentrating full time on research and teaching.
It was for his teaching, his leadership, guidance and insight for which Dr. Miller will be remembered most, said his colleagues.
“His generosity was universal, helping students, trainees, and faculty alike,” said Paul LaCelle, M.D. (M ’59), professor of pharmacology and physiology and former chair of the Department of Biophysics, who knew Dr. Miller for more than three decades. “He showed interest in others while remaining self-effacing and modest. He was kind in assisting me in my chairmanship, offering constructive criticism and suggesting strategies for dealing with the wide range of personalities and situations. He made me, a relative novice, to feel I was his equal.”
Robert Bambara, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, also received guidance from Dr. Miller over the years.
“Dr. Miller was as vigorous and lucid a person as you can imagine,” said Bambara. “He came to every faculty meeting and all the seminars, sitting in the front row, listening intently to presentations and asking very astute questions. He was a deep part of the fabric of our department. He was a real advocate for supporting younger faculty members and gave inspiring talks about how established faculty members should support younger faculty.”
Dr. Miller continued to teach medical students until 2009, leading discussions in the “Molecules to Cells” course for first-year medical students, and still had a hand in interviewing medical school applicants. It was largely due to Dr. Miller’s influence, Bambara said, that many scientific departments at Rochester have created formal mentoring programs, an aspect of the environment for which Rochester has been recognized nationally.
The Leon Miller Graduate Fellowship, established by Dr. Miller’s family and friends to honor his contributions, is awarded annually to a student or students entering the Ph.D. program in biochemistry and biophysics.
Internationally, Dr. Miller is best known for developing a way to keep an animal’s liver functioning outside of the body for several hours or even a full day, making possible detailed studies about the organ and the body that had previously not been feasible. Known as an “isolated perfused liver system,” he used the model for metabolic studies, looking at the effects of hormones and other compounds on the body, especially their role in the synthesis of proteins. He became one of the first experts in the use of radioisotopes in medicine and research, taking advantage of the budding field to make new findings in areas like hemoglobin synthesis, protein synthesis and metabolism.
Although he became professor emeritus in 1978, Dr. Miller remained engaged with the University and its students to an amazing degree, said Bambara, noting that Dr. Miller often arrived to his office earlier than his colleagues, departed later, and in between walked the Medical Center corridors daily for exercise.
“He was our elder; he was our patriarch,” said Bambara. “He was totally devoted to the University, its students, and its faculty.”
Dr. Miller is survived by his wife of 52 years, Betty Miller; children Lynn Miller Coleman, Ellen L. Miller (M ’77), Michael E. Miller (M ’76), Laura J. Miller, John Rhodes Miller (M ’90), and Nancy B. Miller; one brother, William Joseph Miller of New York City; and four grandchildren.
Contributions in his memory may be made to the University’s Edward G. Miner Library or to the Leon Miller Graduate Scholarship Fund, 300 East River Road, Suite 208, Rochester, NY 14627, or to a charity of one’s choice.