On April 10, 1942, Arden Miller lived alone in a dingy apartment in Mansfield, Ohio, and worked at J.C. Penney.
At 17, Miller decided three things about his life: that he would move upward from his modest beginnings; have a big, happy family and enter a career that would bring good to the world.
He accomplished all his goals, and more.
Miller, 90, died last month. He had built an esteemed medical career while advocating for maternal and child health, specifically working to reduce infant and maternal mortality through medical and social interventions. He pushed for radical policy changes, urged family planning, lobbied for public resources such as food stamps to be delivered more efficiently, and declared that government needed to care for the people.
He told the News & Observer in 1982 that he saw his duties as, “for lack of a better term, advocacy; the promotion of services to people so vulnerable they can’t do it themselves.”
He did so, friends and colleagues say, with elegance, grace, and seemingly limitless amounts of patience and passion. For 67 years he was married to his high school sweetheart, Helen Miller, raising four children, and gardening when he could.
“I don’t know how he got so much done, he was not one of these people that worked all the time,” said his son, UNC internist Dr. Tom Miller.
Miller was born in Shelby, Ohio, and experienced trauma early when his mother committed suicide when about 8 years old, an event that left him feeling vulnerable. His father remarried but he was never close to his new set of parents, and was basically on his own before finishing high school.
Luckily, Tom Miller said, his father encountered advocates in his teenage years who urged him to stay focused on the big picture—and study.
“One of the things they told him was, ‘Shoot high,’” Tom Miller said.
Miller went to Oberlin College along with his future bride, and by 1948 graduated cum laude from Yale School of Medicine. He wanted to care for families, and became a pediatrician. Miller was drawn to research, and early in his career worked in one of seven labs around the country working towards a polio vaccine at a time when families refused to allow children to swim in public pools for fear of catching the illness.
Later, while on faculty at the University of Kansas, he had all of the cigarette-vending machines removed from the hospital and medical school after the Surgeon General reported the hazards of smoking. He was dean at age 36, and in 1966 was recruited by UNC-Chapel Hill, where he accepted a vice chancellorship. In 1971 he returned to the classroom where he taught maternal and child health in what is now the Gillings School of Global Public Health. It was clear to Miller that there was an indisputable link between the health of a mother and child and their environmental and socioeconomic circumstances.
“We think of that almost reflexively today, but almost 40 years ago didn’t know why some [babies] were low birth weight or premature. All of the interventions were biomedical, not social. One of the most important ways that we as a nation have influenced the reduction of infant mortality is through family planning, but that notion, I think really, was one of the insights Arden contributed to,” said Dr. Jonathan Koch, a UNC colleague.
Miller was fearless and relentless when it came to speaking his fact-based truths. During his tenure as president of the American Public Health Association, he once told a group of doctors in Chicago that the increased number of physicians in America wasn’t making healthcare more accessible. Instead, he said, it was shortening doctors’ work weeks, keeping incomes high, and resulting in a “shocking increase” in unneeded surgery.
“Very early, and in places it was maybe not always the thinking of the majority, he had the courage to put these things forward,” said former colleague Dr. Pierre Buekens, dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Miller studied public health departments around the world, drawing some unpopular conclusions, among them the fact that many countries were able to spend less, and have better outcomes, than the United States.
“He appreciated the need for good data, but also knew how to apply that data for making policy change,” Koch said.
In 1974, during the National Health Forum held in Boston, before an audience of doctors and policymakers, Miller called for the establishment of a National Health Service for Mothers and Children. It was a concept to which he held firm until the end of his life.
“It must be administered by agencies that have as a first priority the interests of children, not those of agribusiness,” Miller said. “We feed armies. We can feed children.”
News researcher David Raynor contributed to the reporting of this article.
Dr. Cecil Arden Miller
Born Sept. 19, 1924, in Shelby, Ohio.
FAMILY: Marries Helen Miller in 1948, four children: Ben, Helen, John, and Tom and five grandchildren.
EDUCATION: Undergraduate degree from Oberlin College, 1944, medical degree, cum laude, from Yale University, 1948.
CAREER: University of Kansas, 1951 to 1966, rises from a pediatrics instructor to the university’s first provost. In 1966 joins UNC-Chapel Hill as vice chancellor, returns to teaching maternal and child health in 1971, becomes department chair in 1977. Retires 1994.
Dies July 26.