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Freeman Devold Miller (1909–2000)

Published onDec 01, 2000
Freeman Devold Miller (1909–2000)

Freeman Devold Miller of the University of Michigan's Department of Astronomy died January 10, 2000, at the age of 91. A recognized authority on comets, Miller had been at the University of Michigan since 1946. Always active, he came to his office in the astronomy department daily after his 1977 retirement, and published his last refereed paper, on Comet Bennett, in 1992. Illness finally got in the way of continuing his work in 1998. Miller was one of the very few retired scientists ever to receive a NASA grant without applying for it when, in 1986, he was asked by the agency to make observations of Comet Halley as part of the International Halley Watch.

Professor Miller received his SB, MA and PhD degrees at Harvard in 1930, 1932 and 1934. When he began work on his PhD, he became one of Bart Bok's first two graduate students. The other was Eric Lindsay of Northern Ireland. Both became Bok's doctoral students practically simultaneously and both passed their doctoral examinations on the same day in the Spring of 1934. Both theses were concerned with analyses of star counts, and were outgrowths of the technique pioneered by Bok in his own thesis. (Bart Bok had been brought from Europe by Harvard Observatory's young director Harlow Shapley in 1929, to work on his Gröningen doctorate. At Harvard, Bok was named Agassiz Fellow and completed his degree work in 1932.) After the two students received their doctorates in 1934, Lindsay returned to Northern Ireland and Miller moved with his new wife to Denison University in Granville, Ohio, into a position that had been found for him by Bok and Shapley.

In 1933, while he was working on his dissertation research with Bok, Freeman Miller married Marie Dresser, who was then a junior at Radcliffe. In those days such a thing was just not done. Speaking of the wedding many years later, Professor Miller said the event caused "considerable uproar" in their respective academic communities. Nevertheless Marie continued and completed her education at Radcliffe while Freeman finished his work at Harvard College Observatory; their marriage was romantic and long lasting.

At Denison University Miller carried on his star-count research as the sole astronomer and director of the Swasey Observatory until late 1940 when he was called into active service by the United States Navy which had trained him through the Harvard NROTC.

Miller's naval service in WW II included tours of duty as Commander of a destroyer division (DesDiv59) in the Pacific theater, and as assistant professor of naval science and tactics at Rice University in Houston, Texas. His destroyer group saw much action in the Aleutian Islands arena. He was discharged from the Navy in early 1946 and entered the reserves. Later, in his retirement, Miller was advanced to the rank of Captain.

Upon his discharge from the Navy Miller received a stipend and research facilities at Harvard for a few months. Although he expected to return to Denison University he was invited to the University of Michigan's Summer School as visiting associate professor in 1946, an appointment that became a full time position that fall. Miller was never hesitant to give grateful credit for these events to Bart Bok, who arranged them. As he put it, "Not everyone would have taken so much trouble for a 37-year-old ex-student who had been out of the profession for five years!"

At Michigan, Professor Miller moved quickly to propose and help motivate the acquisition of a Schmidt telescope which was ideal for the stellar statistical studies he was engaged in. His first years at Michigan were occupied with erecting it and making it operational. Named for a former director of the Observatories of The University of Michigan, Heber D. Curtis, the instrument became known locally as the Curtis Schmidt Telescope. Completed in 1948, it was officially commissioned in a ceremony in Michigan following the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in June of 1950, a meeting that was held at Indiana University in Bloomington.

This telescope was the gift of the Tracy McGregor Foundation of Detroit, a benefactor of astronomy at the University of Michigan. Earlier, the Foundation had presented to the astronomy department a 100-inch diameter Pyrex blank, one of the test blanks cast in preparation for pouring the famous 200-inch mirror. The blank was intended to become the primary mirror in a long-anticipated large Michigan telescope, and had been stored on campus during WW II until work on the instrument could begin. But plans changed. Urged by members of the department, especially Professor Miller, the McGregor Foundation agreed to take back the unused mirror blank in exchange for a Schmidt telescope fabricated by the Warner and Swasey Company of Cleveland, Ohio. It was erected in a University-controlled woods northwest of the town of Dexter, Michigan.

Years later, in the early 1970s, the Michigan Curtis Schmidt was relocated with Professor Miller's considerable assistance to Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, where it has since been employed by many groups of astronomers in numerous research projects. In 1986 Professor Emeritus Miller traveled to Chile to use it to make observations of Comet Halley at the request of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He thus closed his observing career with the same instrument he had first commissioned nearly forty years earlier on a different continent.

Miller's first post-WW II research paper was titled "The Spectrum of Comet 1948g." He continued his research on star counts and stellar demographics, but by 1957 began to focus his work almost exclusively on the structure and physical properties of comets, his observations of them making good use of the Schmidt telescope's wide field of view. One of his principal interests concerned understanding how the dynamic structure of comets' tails was conditioned by interaction with interplanetary magnetic fields that were swept up as a comet penetrated into the inner solar system. He was advanced to the rank of professor at The University of Michigan in 1955.

Professor Miller was named in 1956 to a three year term in the Scientific Manpower Commission in Washington, DC. He held several important administrative posts at The University of Michigan: as director of the National Science Foundation's Academic Year Institute of High School Teachers of Science and Mathematics, 1957; as assistant to the dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, 1958-1959; as associate dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, 1958-1966; as acting chair of the Department of Astronomy, 1960-1962. During his service as associate dean of the Graduate School, Professor Miller had full responsibility for the Graduate Fellowship and Faculty Research Grant Programs.

Freeman Miller is survived by his wife of 66 years, Marie Dresser Miller.

Prepared and presented as a memorial minute for the College Faculty.

Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

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