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Miller, Edmund Morris (1881–1964)

by John Reynolds and Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Edmund Morris Miller (1881-1964), scholar, was born on 14 August 1881 at Pietermaritzburg, Natal, son of Scottish parents David Miller, tailor, and his wife Georgina Agnes, née Morris. The family moved to Melbourne in January 1883 and settled at Flemington. Ed's mother was ardent in her devotion to the Church of Christ, his father to liberal politicians such as W. E. Gladstone and Alfred Deakin.

After an early education at the local state school and a spell in his maternal grandfather's boot workshop Miller attended University High School and Wesley College. In 1900 he began a professional career at the Public Library of Victoria and also enrolled at the University of Melbourne, graduating B.A. in 1905 and M.A. with first-class honours in philosophy in 1907. The achievement of Federation deepened his political interests and nationalist enthusiasm, while, under the influence of Professor Henry Laurie, he developed an abiding passion for Kant and idealism. His life at the library was less happy as he asserted himself against bureaucratic and hierarchic norms.

In 1906 Miller worked for the short-lived Australian National Party, writing his first articles on Australian culture and history. Next year, as secretary to the Imperial Federation League in Melbourne, he made contact with Deakin and the two developed something of a father-son tie. In 1908 Miller travelled, notably in Scotland and Germany. He visited Rudolph Eucken, whose ethical idealism came close to his own world-view, and on Deakin's introduction met L. S. Amery and other notables of Imperial federation. On his return to Melbourne he published several pamphlets in this cause as well as his first Kantian essay—an attempt to develop a synthesis of Kant and modern relativists (particularly William James) and so provide an ethical basis for active citizenship.

A central figure in the formation of the Library Association of Victoria in 1912, Miller that year published the first Australian monograph in librarianship, Libraries and Education. It reflected his absorption of functional ideas: 'where the need is socially urgent, there the library should be most ready to press its service'. But Miller was by now hoping for an academic career. Further research in Melbourne's philosophy department resulted in Kant's Doctrine of Freedom (1912) and in April 1913 he became lecturer in philosophy and economics at the University of Tasmania. From the outset he gave skilled leadership to the university's modest library and promptly helped to found the Workers' Educational Association of Tasmania.

Miller soon forsook his work in economics but became increasingly absorbed in applied psychology. He drafted the Mental Deficiency Act (1920) and in 1922 was appointed first director of the State Psychological Clinic whose chief task was to test children's intelligence and advise on special education. Miller became an enthusiast for 'mental hygiene' while avoiding the harsher elements of racial and social eugenics. Both before and after being appointed full professor of psychology and philosophy in 1928 he drew part of his salary directly from the state. From 1924 Miller was also president of the (Royal) Tasmanian Institution for the Blind and Deaf, and from 1925 chairman of the Mental Deficiency Board. A trustee of the Tasmanian Public Library, he became chairman in 1923 and was a founder of the Library Association of Australia in 1928.

These community endeavours resulted in part from Miller's feeling that within the university he was slighted and undervalued. Tension persisted between himself and such traditional purists as Robert Dunbabin, notwithstanding Miller's Litt.D. awarded by the University of Melbourne in 1919, his publication of further monographs on Kant (in 1924 and 1928) and his presidency of the Australasian Association for Psychology and Philosophy in 1929-30. In 1926 he offered for the chair of philosophy at the University of Sydney which in the event went to John Anderson. He also stood, in vain, that year for the University of Tasmania's council, seeking support primarily from interested laymen rather than fellow academics; he gained a place in 1928. In 1933 lay backing won him election as vice-chancellor (part-time).

Miraculously, Miller not only sustained these various roles throughout the 1930s but established his major right to fame—as author of the bibliographic Australian Literature From its Beginnings (two volumes, 1940). Although Frederick Broomfield, Sir John Quick and others contributed to this work, Miller's effort was prodigious. The bibliography is comprehensive; it gives much biographical and publishing detail; and Miller's commentaries, if sometimes amateurish, are much more often shrewd and enlightening. His nationalistic faith suffuses the whole.

The 1940s saw a lessening of Miller's responsibilities. In 1940 he ceased being head of the Blind and Deaf Institution which had struggled worthily through financially straitened times. Soon afterwards the State Library of Tasmania was restructured in a way which Miller did not wholly support and he resigned his chairmanship: the theme of his tenure had been survival rather than vigour, although he had encouraged work for children and an Australian collection. In 1939-40 Miller took pride in organizing the transfer from the Commonwealth of a new site for the university at Sandy Bay. Yet remaining tensions conduced to his abandoning the vice-chancellorship in 1945. He still taught, without enthusiasm, until 1951. His leadership of the Mental Deficiency Board and the Psychological Clinic ended in 1946, albeit briefly resumed in 1951-52.

In retirement Miller remained a thinker and scholar. The chief fruit of his increasingly engrossing enthusiasm for Australian literature was the solid and informative Pressmen and Governors: Australian Editors and Writers in Early Tasmania (1952). Retaining an interest in the university, he upheld his successor in the chair of philosophy, Sydney Sparkes Orr, after his dismissal in 1956 for alleged sexual misconduct.

Long a believer in the right of scholars and literati to enjoy public honours, Miller accepted appointment as C.B.E. in 1962. He had earlier been awarded the gold medal of the Australian Literature Society and elected a fellow of the British Psychological Society (1943) and of the International Institute of Arts and Letters. He died on 21 October 1964, survived by his wife Catherine Mackinnon, née Carson, a Scottish-born milliner whom he had married in Melbourne on 1 June 1914, and by their daughter. He was cremated.

Miller did not possess an intellect of the highest order. At times he could be 'political' in the pejorative sense, and his own tendency, as well as Tasmanian circumstance, was to spread his interests too widely. Yet such reservations mean little against his extraordinary record of public service and scholarly achievement. The central library of the University of Tasmania bears his name; within hangs a portrait by J. Carington Smith which conveys the subject's genial and tenacious qualities.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Rodda (compiler), E.M.M. (Hob, 1970)
  • J. Reynolds and M. Giordano, Countries of the Mind (Hob, 1985)
  • M. Roe, Nine Australian Progressives (Brisb, 1984)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 22 Oct 1964
  • D. Drinkwater, Librarian Errant: E. Morris Miller and Australian Librarianship (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1984).

Citation details

John Reynolds and Michael Roe, 'Miller, Edmund Morris (1881–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miller-edmund-morris-7581/text13237, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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