Miller left mark on science with innovative genetics finding

February 9, 2012
By Chris Saunders
Photo courtesy of University of Virginia/ David Skinner.

Photo courtesy of University of Virginia/ David Skinner.

After Oscar Lee Miller ’48, ’50 MS finished his studies at NC State, he put his agronomy degrees to use by working as a farmer. Six years later, though, Miller traded farm life for a return to academia.

It was a decision that would change the course of his life and the study of genetics in America.

Miller, a native of Gastonia, N.C., died in January at the University of Virginia Hospital following an accomplished career as a molecular biologist and university professor.

After his stint on the farm, Miller enrolled at the University of Minnesota to pursue a doctorate in plant genetics.  In 1961, he was hired by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy scientific lab in Tennessee, and embarked on his major scientific work as a molecular biologist.

He concentrated on devising a way to unlock DNA’s structure and look inside it to understand its scientific makeup. He’s credited with developing “Miller spreading,” a method that allowed scientists to unfold chromosomes. That breakthrough allowed scientists to study genes through electron microscopes and affirmed the hypothesis of DNA’s double-helix structure.

In 1973, Miller went to work at the University of Virginia, where he continued research in his lab until 1995. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1978 and received the Life Achievement Award in Science from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1997. He also served as a visiting professor at major research institutions around the world.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Rose Miller; his son, Oscar Lee Miller III; his daughter, Sharon Miller Bushnell; and   three granddaughters.

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