Leon Miller, Scientist and Physician at URMC for 72 Years, Dies at 97

Sep. 6, 2010
Leon Miller, M.D., Ph.D.

Leon L. Miller, M.D., Ph.D., a scientist and physician who was part of the fabric of the University of Rochester Medical Center for all but the first dozen years of its 84-year history, died Friday, Sept. 3, at Highland Hospital in Rochester.

Dr. Miller, who arrived at the Medical Center in 1938 – just 14 years after University President Rush Rhees laid the cornerstone of the medical center complex and 12 years after the first baby was born at Strong Memorial Hospital – was 97 years old.

A memorial service for Dr. Miller, who was most recently professor emeritus of Biochemistry and Biophysics, will be at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1, at the First Unitarian Church, 220 Winton Road South.

Dr. Miller, a Rochester native, was the son of immigrant parents: His father was a wrought-iron worker and his mother a seamstress. A graduate of East High School, he went on to Cornell University, earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and his doctorate in organic chemistry in 1934 and 1937, respectively.

It was through his brother, conductor Mitch Miller – who died just last month at the age of 99 – that 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 – and his leadership, his guidance, and his 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., 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,” added LaCelle.

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,” added Bambara. Dr. Miller continued to teach medical students up until last year, 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 results of successful mentoring can be seen throughout the basic, translational and clinical research enterprise of the University.

In an article published in 2007 in Rochester Medicine, Dr. Miller discussed his love of teaching.

“The interviews and the class give me a chance to do something useful,” Dr. Miller said. “Doctor means teacher. In the problem-based session, you don’t teach in the traditional way. You lead them on so they can learn themselves. I ask questions. They have to find the answers. You hope they learn that if you like medicine and you want to be in medicine, you can’t stop learning. It’s a commitment for perpetual learning.”

Just last week, at the convocation of the School of Medicine and Dentistry, two promising graduate students in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics were awarded Leon Miller Graduate Fellowships. The 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.

“My most vivid memory of his personality was his comment: ‘As you already know…,’ offered at the beginning of an informal scientific discussion or lecture – an expression which was followed by his succinct summary of the essentials needed to understand the point he was making. This remark endeared him to me and I am certain to faculty and students,” said LaCelle.

Over the years at Rochester, Dr. Miller taught pathology, tracer chemistry – use of chemical isotopes in biomedicine – and biochemistry. 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.

The method allowed Dr. Miller to intensify his studies of the liver’s role in amino acid and protein metabolism, an interest derived from Whipple. Dr. Miller and his team used the model to make basic findings about the actions of insulin and hormones such as glucagon in the liver. The work is central to the understanding of how the body provides the proper amount of energy and nutrition to its tissues at all times; the findings quickly became timeless knowledge for any medical student or scientist studying metabolism.

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 and protein synthesis and metabolism. For several years he was a faculty member of the Department of Radiation Biology, where physicians and scientists put the new information to work to develop new imaging technologies and cancer treatments.

Since becoming 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. Dr. Miller usually arrived so early to work, decades after being named faculty emeritus, that for years he vied with a handful of early risers such as Bambara and Professor Shey-Shing Sheu, Ph.D., for a favorite, coveted parking spot.

“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, Michael E. Miller, Laura J. Miller, John Rhodes Miller, and Nancy B. Miller; one brother, William Joseph Miller of New York City; and four grandchildren. Ellen, Michael, and John are all graduates of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. 

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.