In more than four decades at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Wesley Miller left an indelible mark on its medical school.
An early proponent of evidence-based medicine, Miller played a key role in the university’s pioneering work in bone marrow and stem cell transplantation. He shaped the way the U nurtures clinician-educators and mentored a slew of physicians who are now on the medical school faculty. He also stepped in to lead the Department of Medicine at a time of fiscal crisis.
Miller died in July of complications from esophageal cancer at his home in Roseville. He was 71.
“He was a remarkable man in so many ways,” said Dr. John Bantle, a U professor of medicine and friend. “He was an excellent physician, and he had a strong focus on academic medicine.”
Miller was born and raised in Joliet, Ill. He attended Macalester College in St. Paul and went on to medical school at the University of Illinois. As a first-year student, he shared a room with Dr. Philip McGlave, who would go on to found the adult bone marrow transplant program at the U with Miller’s help. Miller humbled his fellow students with his knowledge of anatomy during cadaver dissections, offering pointers and insights.
“He was a very smart guy and a born educator,” McGlave said. “He was always excellent in a low-key way.”
Miller completed his internal medicine residency, chief residency and hematology fellowship at the U. He joined the hematology faculty, where he specialized in blood disorders and marrow transplantation. At the U, he also met his future wife, Nancy Nelson, who was then a junior scientist in the hematology lab. They had three sons.
McGlave says Miller’s clinical care work was instrumental in the university’s marrow transplant program. Its early days in the late 1970s were marked by a shortage of resources and a high mortality rate for the leukemia and lymphoma patients participating in it. Miller, who cared for patients before, during and after transplants, was a steady presence, inspiring confidence in his colleagues and comforting families with his empathetic bedside manner.
Colleagues say Miller was an early advocate for evidence-based medicine, a shift away from a reliance on traditional and anecdotal approaches, some of which were shown to be ineffective or even harmful. Nelson said Miller, who won numerous teaching awards, took special pride in his work on the U’s academic medicine curriculum and on steering medical school residents toward teaching. Colleagues told her he was one of few heads of medicine who regularly attended morning rounds.
In 2009, Miller was tapped to lead the Department of Medicine as the school plunged into the red following a decline in federal grants and an expensive push to improve its national rankings. He made tough decisions — including cutting administrative expenses and faculty clinical pay — in a way colleagues describe as unassailably evenhanded. Paying female faculty on par with male professors was important to him, they said. He held the position until his retirement in 2015.
Nelson said that despite his dedication to the job, he never brought it home, focusing instead on bonding with his sons, whom he took on canoe trips every summer. He also was an accomplished furniture-maker and musician. Bantle, who played tennis with Miller, said he loved to tell catch-and-release fly-fishing stories.
“Don’t you want to eat at least one of those trout?” Bantle once asked him. “I can’t,” he replied. “They are too pretty.”
In addition to his wife, Miller is survived by sons Jonathan, Matthew and Nickolas; mother Betty Miller; sister Betsy, and a granddaughter. Services have been held.