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Sir Ian Douglas (Douglas) Miller (1900–1996)

by Maxwell J. Coleman

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Ian Douglas Miller (1900–1996), neurosurgeon, was born on 20 July 1900 in Melbourne, younger child of Victorian-born parents Joseph John Miller, medical practitioner, and his wife Annie Clare, née Doolan. Aged thirty-seven, Joseph died from an unknown illness. Annie married Mark Young, a banker. The family moved to Ballarat, and then to Geelong, before returning to Melbourne. Douglas attended Xavier College, Melbourne. After his stepfather was transferred to Sydney, in 1919 he enrolled in medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, 1924). His clinical attachment was to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

While a medical student, Miller developed a pilonidal sinus. In his fourth year, the surgeon John Storey admitted him to a private hospital owned by another surgeon, Sir Alexander MacCormick. While convalescing, Miller requested that he be allowed to watch MacCormick operate, which resulted in him being made second assistant. Following his residency at St Vincent’s Hospital, he became MacCormick’s junior assistant. MacCormick’s surgeries commenced at 7.30 a.m. at The Terraces, after which he operated at a number of local private hospitals as well as occasionally at Lewisham or the Mater Hospital, North Sydney. MacCormick recommended that Miller undertake work at the University of Sydney as a demonstrator in anatomy to help him prepare for the primary examination for fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Leaving for London in November 1926, Miller was employed at Hackney Hospital and undertook the fellowship course at Middlesex Hospital, but he failed the examination. In July 1928 he was appointed honorary assistant surgeon at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, and was invited to become MacCormick’s private assistant. Advised by MacCormick and (Sir) Benjamin Edye to defer the job until after he had retaken the examination, Miller did so, and passed. Back at St Vincent’s in 1929, he became honorary surgeon. In 1930 he was admitted as a fellow of the (Royal) Australasian College of Surgeons. He had become MacCormick’s first assistant, but in 1931 MacCormick retired. Francis Sandes, the director of cancer research and treatment at the University of Sydney, appointed Miller part-time registrar responsible for radium needles. He was also lecturer in surgical anatomy (1929–47) at the university.

Miller performed general surgical procedures, including bilateral lumbar sympathectomies for hypertension and multiple subtotal resections for thyrotoxicosis. In 1932 at St Vincent’s outpatients he encountered an elderly man with eye signs suggestive of a pituitary tumour, confirmed on X-ray. He discussed the condition with (Sir) Harold Dew, the new professor of surgery at the University of Sydney, and proceeded with a trans-nasal approach. The next morning the patient’s vision returned. Spurred on by this outcome, and with encouragement from Dew, he set off to the London Hospital to study under (Sir) Hugh Cairns. Arriving back in Australia in 1934, he returned to St Vincent’s and the University of Sydney. An excellent teacher, he had been appointed dean of the clinical school at the hospital in 1930; he would hold the position until 1964. With others he formed the Society of Australasian Neurological Surgeons in 1940. On 19 July that year he married (Valerie) Phyllis Laidley Mort at the St Joan of Arc Catholic Church, Farnham, Surrey, England.

Volunteering for service in World War II, Miller was appointed on 25 October 1940 as a captain (major, from November) in the Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. He sailed for the Middle East in February 1941 with the 2/9th Australian General Hospital. In November he was placed in charge of the neurosurgical centre for British forces at the 15th Scottish General Hospital, Cairo. Back in Australia in March 1942, he headed the surgical division of the 102nd AGH at Tamworth, New South Wales, from August, as a lieutenant colonel. On 28 May 1944 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He returned to neurosurgery and general surgery at St Vincent’s Hospital and—from 1950—the Mater Hospital; he would also maintain a consultancy with the 113th AGH (later Repatriation General Hospital), Concord, Sydney, until 1965. In 1948 he ceased general surgery work and became honorary neurosurgeon at St Vincent’s, founding the hospital’s neurosurgery department.

In 1947 Miller was elected to the council of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS). It was a significant period for the RACS, as numerous surgeons at the end of the war held British qualifications. The college wished to include these surgeons, but they were disinclined to sit a further examination. Miller, an ‘apostle of flexibility’ (Beasley 2002, 88), suggested in 1955 that those holding fellowship of a reciprocal college should sit only the viva voce examination. From 1957 to 1959 he was president of the college. In 1955 he and Benjamin K. Rank had travelled to South-East Asia through the Colombo Plan, and in 1957 the Australasian fellowship examination was held in Singapore; it would be introduced in Hong Kong a decade later. Following his presidency, Miller was chairman of the editorial board of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery (1958–73) and honorary archivist (1973–80). In 1974 the journal produced a commemorative number celebrating his career.

A pioneer of neurosurgery, Miller made an important contribution to St Vincent’s Hospital. In 1960 he retired from the general hospital, but he continued as a member of the board of directors (chairman 1967–73) and in his teaching and private practice. As a leader, he was ‘urbane’ with a ‘charming manner’ (Beasley 2002, 104) overlying a steely determination. He possessed a wonderful turn of phrase. Knighted in 1961, he received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Singapore in 1973, and an honorary doctorate of medicine from the University of Sydney in 1979. In 1980 Sir Douglas became an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. He appreciated history, exploring the establishment and development to 1940 of St Vincent’s in his Earlier Days: A Story of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney (1969), and writing on the history of the RACS. In 1985 he published his memoir, A Surgeon’s Story. He died on 3 January 1996 in Sydney, survived by his wife and their three sons and two daughters, and was buried in Northern Suburbs Catholic lawn cemetery after a Mass at St Mary’s Church, North Sydney. The department of neurosurgery and a lecture theatre at St Vincent’s were named in his honour, and a portrait by Judy Cassab hung at the hospital.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Beasley, A. W. The Mantle of Surgery: The First Seventy-Five Years of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. Melbourne: Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, 2002
  • Bleasel, Kevin. ‘Sir Ian Douglas Miller.’ Medical Journal of Australia 164, no. 11 (3 June 1996): 697
  • Coleman, Maxwell J. The Doers: A Surgical History of St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney 1857–2007. [Roseville, NSW]: JAM Graphics, 2018
  • Kennedy, Trevor. ‘Neurosurgeon Took Skills to Asia,’ Australian, 8 January 1996, 13
  • Loewenthal, John, P. J. Kenny, and Yeoh Ghim Seng. ‘Douglas Miller.’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery 44, no. 3 (July 1974): 211–14
  • Mellor, Lise. ‘Miller, Sir Ian Douglas.’ Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney. 2008. Accessed 25 October 2019.,_Sir_Ian_Douglas. Copy held on ADB file
  • Miller, Sir Douglas. Interview by Max Blythe, 9 September 1993. Transcript. Royal College of Physicians and Oxford Brookes University Medical Sciences Video Archive, MSVA 89
  • Simpson, D. A., K. G. Jamieson, and S. M. Morson. ‘The Foundations of Neurosurgery in Australia and New Zealand.’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery 44, no. 3 (July 1974): 215–27

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Citation details

Maxwell J. Coleman, 'Miller, Sir Ian Douglas (Douglas) (1900–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 19 July 2024.

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