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Indiana University Bloomington

Department of Biology

Alumni & Development

BioNews: Winter 2013-14

Biology remembers: Carlos Miller, 1923-2012

Emeritus Professor of Biology Carlos O. Miller died on August 18, 2012, in Bloomington, Indiana, following a severe stroke. The department lost a dedicated scientist, a dear friend, and a generous benefactor.

Miller was born February 19, 1923, in Jackson, Ohio, to Marcella Leach Miller. He was raised by his mother and stepfather, William Howard May; and is survived by his half sister, Dorothy Basham; and his half brothers, William Calvin May and Jerry May. Miller was preceded in death by his parents; his half sister, Joann Pettit; and his brother, Gerald Miller, whose wife, Imogene, survives.

Miller attended The Ohio State University where he received his undergraduate degree, master's, and Ph.D. His college education was interrupted from 1943−46 while he served in the United States Army as a meteorologist. During the time of his military service, he took training at Denison University and Harvard University in the fields of mathematics, physics, electronics, and meteorology.

After his return to Ohio State following the war, Miller switched his major from electrical engineering to plant physiology, graduating cum laude, and staying on to complete his Ph.D. in 1951. For his dissertation, he studied how light and various organic and inorganic compounds affected the growth of plant cells.

Carlos Miller in Skoog lab

Carlos Miller (left) at the University of Wisconsin with members of the Skoog lab. Photo: Courtesy of Carlos Miller

After receiving his Ph.D., Miller joined Folke Skoog's laboratory at the University of Wisconsin to continue work on the growth of plant cells. One of his projects was to identify the factor (or factors) in an extract of yeast that caused plant cells to vigorously divide. With great perseverance and a knack for chemistry, Miller purified enough of the factor to determine its chemical structure. He and his colleagues submitted a landmark paper in 1955 on the discovery of a new hormone they named kinetin that stimulated plant cells to divide. Miller also discovered that this hormone could be used to coax plant cells to grow back into whole plants from just a single cell. This technology is now a cornerstone of the plant biotechnology industry.

Miller moved to Indiana University in 1957, where he accepted a position as assistant professor of botany. At IU, he pursued the identification of an endogenous plant hormone that had the same growth stimulating effects as kinetin. After years of grinding large batches of developing corn kernels as a starting source of the hormone, Miller purified and identified the natural hormone, which he named zeatin after the scientific name of corn, Zea mays. To have discovered one form of a new class of hormones is more than most scientists can hope to achieve in their career; to have discovered two forms is remarkable.

After these discoveries, Miller continued to be highly productive. He devoted much of the remainder of his career to understanding the biochemical mechanisms through which cytokinins exert their many effects on plant growth and development. Although he officially retired in 1987, he continued to conduct research on plant physiology until the time of his death.

Miller viewed doing science as a privilege that society had granted him, and he wished that others would have the opportunity to share in that privilege. Accordingly, in 1999 Miller endowed and established the Carlos O. Miller Chair in Plant Growth and Development and in 2007, he endowed and established the Carlos O. Miller Graduate Fellowship in Plant Developmental Biology, both at Indiana University.

Carlos Miller in lab

Carlos Miller. Photo: Courtesy of Carlos Miller

Doing science was a labor of love for Miller; even at age 89, he continued to arrive in the lab early in the morning seven days a week because he was always excited to start the next experiment. "Carlos came to the lab every day to do research," said Mark Estelle, the first recipient of the Miller Chair. "He was an inspiration to the faculty, students, and postdocs. Carlos was unique in another respect. There are lots of endowed chairs around the world, but I bet that Carlos was the only benefactor to have been working day to day next door to the chair holder."

Miller loved to talk science, always with a smile on his face that could not help but brighten your day. "Carlos really enjoyed the buzz of scientific activity on the third floor of Myers Hall, immersed as he was among five busy labs conducting studies of the model plant, Arabidopsis. He was always interested in the names of the students and postdocs and what everyone was doing," said Craig Pikaard, the current Miller Chair.

Following Miller's wishes, no funeral was held, but his family, friends, colleagues, and former students gathered to remember him on November 9, 2012. Richard Amasino, BA'77, MA'79, PhD'82; Janet Slovin, MA'77, PhD'81; and Robert Brookshire, BSEduc'65, MSEduc'68, who were former members of the Miller lab, paid tribute to their mentor at the celebration. Those who could not attend sent their favorite memories to be shared at the gathering.

William G. Hopkins, PhD'64, wrote, "Carlos was one of three people who had a lasting impact on my career as a plant scientist, teacher, and writer. I have nothing but the fondest memories of my four years as a graduate student in his lab. He was a great teacher, a true gentleman, and a dedicated scholar." Hopkins less pleasantly remembers the large vats of milky-stage corn found in the Miller lab during the attempts to isolate the endogenous cytokinin, wryly noting that he has never been able to eat creamed corn since then!

Michael Freeling, PhD'73, appreciated Miller's many kindnesses. "He had an old Rambler that he gave to me when I was a penniless graduate student. I think he gave Catherine (my ex) and me a v8 Oldsmobile Cutlass as well, after I ran the Rambler into the ground. Carlos was a generous man."

Steven M. Smith, MA'77, has a photograph of Carlos on his office wall at the University of Western Australia. He wrote, "I will always be grateful to him for all he taught me and for the opportunity that he gave me─an unknown student from England that he welcomed into his lab."

Miller is deeply missed by his family, friends, former students, and colleagues. Stephan A. George summed it up best when he wrote, "There are many of us who treasure his memory. If living life to the full is measured by the impact we have on others, Carlos met that challenge and excelled in it."

Memorial contributions can be made to the Carlos O. Miller Graduate Fellowship in care of the Indiana University Foundation.

To read more about Miller’s discovery of kinetin, visit:

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