Robert Miller, neuroscientist and microsurgeon, dies at 81

Susan Du, Star Tribune
·3 min read

Robert F. Miller, born in Eugene, Ore., in 1939, was a restaurant cook whose boss realized he was made for something bigger. So Miller went to medical school and launched a career as a renowned neuroscientist and microsurgeon.

He dedicated his life to the study of the eye, its diseases, and how the neurons of the cells making up the retina worked with light. While serving as the 3M Bert Cross Chair and head of physiology at the University of Minnesota, Miller simultaneously ran a productive lab that helped launch the careers of many brilliant graduate students.

He taught a popular undergraduate class called "From Molecules to Madness," which showed how the most basic biochemistry of the nervous system could manifest complex mental illness, and volunteered with Brain Awareness Week, encouraging high school students to explore neuroscience. In 2008, Miller was awarded the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology's (ARVO) prestigious Proctor Medal.

"He was a rare case of a guy who could be head of the department, and still keep the lab going strong," said Emeritus Prof. Dwight Burkhardt, who described their friendship of five decades as "warm and generous, scientifically rewarding and stimulating."

"Most people thought that you simply could not do all these things. You couldn't be head and also continue on as a serious, first-level scientist, but he was able to do it."

Miller had an insatiable curiosity for mastering challenges, said his wife of 52 years, Rosemary. As a boy, he trained carrier pigeons, raised and sold tropical fish and secretly bought a horse, which he stowed at his grandfather's farm until it was discovered by his parents.

Miller grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, peeling potatoes and cooking at a restaurant called Finn's before pursuing an M.D. at the University of Utah.

In retirement he became a prizewinning orchid grower, filling their home with 300 varieties at a time. He also ran a droll left-wing blog during George W. Bush's presidency, which he used to promote universal free college and disparage creationism in the classroom.

"He always did things to the Nth degree, and one just got used to that. If he had decided he was going to do something, off he went," said Rosemary Miller. "In the academic world, that's probably not a bad thing to do, because it's better to get chastised than to be told you can't do it."

Miller had two sons, Derek and Drew, who live in Minneapolis. He was the boys' Cub Scout leader, an attentive fan at many of their games, and a mentor to other scientifically minded neighborhood kids.

He was also a daring skier and lifelong golfer, practicing both into his late 70s. Golfing was one of the ways he maintained close relationships with old friends and his adult sons.

"He did have a very busy schedule, but I don't remember him missing things. He was always very present," said Drew Miller. "He was insistent that the thing that distinguished you both in your career and in your life was hard work. He was an incredibly hard worker, even though he was a fairly gifted person."

Miller battled progressive supranuclear palsy and died surrounded by immediate family on March 1. He is survived by his wife, sons, sisters Cynthia and Cathy, and countless other relatives, friends and colleagues.

Services will be held at a later date.

Susan Du • 612 673-4028