Foil A. Miller

Born: January 18, 1916 | Aurora, IL, US

Foil A. Miller was involved early on with Pittcon and its two founding groups, the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society of Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh. In his preliminary interview Miller outlines some of the changes in the field of instrumentation that he has observed during the course of his career and reflects on some of the key individuals in instrument entrepreneurship. An interview conducted ten years later focuses on his personal biography. Inspired by a high school science teacher to study chemistry, he attended Hamline University, then went onto graduate school at Johns Hopkins. Miller spent much of his career in academia and research, taking positions at the National Research Council, the University of Minnesota, the Mellon Institute, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0220
No. of pages: 70
Minutes: 171
Sponsor: Bolton Society

Interview Sessions

Arnold Thackray
23 May 2001 and 28 June 2011
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Glenview, Illinois

Abstract of Interview

Foil A. Miller begins the first interview, given about ten years before the second, by describing the origins of the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon). Miller was involved early on with Pittcon and its two founding groups, the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society of Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh. In the 1950s, Pittsburgh had an active community of both academics and people from industry; this collaboration contributed to the success of Pittcon. Although the emphasis of the conference has evolved over time and reflects changes in the fields, it possesses a strong institutional history that allows for smooth transitions in leadership and administration. Miller outlines some of the changes in the field of instrumentation that he has observed during the course of his career and reflects on some of the key individuals in instrument entrepreneurship. Although Miller first came to Pittsburgh to work at the Mellon Institute, he later moved to the University of Pittsburgh where he taught in the chemistry department until his retirement at age sixty-five. After retirement, Miller indulged his love of travel and developed an interest in stamp collecting, particularly stamps relating to physics and chemistry. Revisited ten years after the first interview, Miller reprises his description of the early Pittcon years. The newer interview has a slightly different—slightly more personal—focus, beginning with Miller's family background and continuing with a short précis of his growing up and selection of chemistry, especially spectroscopy, as a career. Miller was born in Aurora, Illinois, but grew up in Pepin, Wisconsin, the only brother of five sisters. His class at school numbered seven. Though he had a very good English teacher, Mrs. Morris, he had no chemistry classes at all. His first exposure to chemistry, from The Book of Knowledge, bored him, but his high-school science teacher gave him a chemistry textbook, which he loved, and which thoroughly convinced him that he was destined for chemistry. Miller entered Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, as a chemistry major. The two chemistry teachers there were not good, but he persevered. He also had to work several jobs to supplement his scholarship. Miller then spent a year as a teaching assistant at the University of Nebraska, which had a good organic chemistry program. He wanted, however, to switch to physical chemistry, so he applied for and won the Chemical Foundation Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. There he worked with Richard Lord, helping him build a Raman spectroscope and learning infrared (IR) spectroscopy. At about the time he finished his PhD he married Ruth Naomi Zeller. He taught a class in analyzing explosives. He found Joseph Mayer and Frederick Wiselogle excellent teachers after whom to model himself. Next came two years as a National Research Council postdoc under Bryce Crawford at the University of Minnesota and then a position at the University of Illinois, where he taught physical chemistry, a job he loved. Technological advances in spectroscopy helped Harold Klug recruit Miller to the Mellon Institute. Miller had reservations about moving to Pittsburgh, but forgot them when he saw the new Baird double beam infrared instrument and the Cary visible/UV spectrometer, both with serial number one. He became Head of the Spectroscopy Division at Mellon and later Senior Fellow in Independent Research. He concurrently taught a course on spectroscopy at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt). When Mellon Institute merged with Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1967 to form Carnegie-Mellon University, Miller transferred to Pitt and taught there until he retired at the age of sixty-five. He wrote a series of papers with William Fateley; he taught, for fifty-three years, a summer course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and with Dana Mayo and Robert Hanna, he wrote Course Notes on the Interpretation of Infrared and Raman Spectra. These notes were published after much revision and updating, but only after having been translated into Chinese for a course in China. About the time of his retirement, Miller began collecting stamps concerning chemistry and physics. He is himself the subject of a cachet as a landmark scientist in analytical chemistry. He has been editor of Philatelia Chimica et Physica and, with Edgar Heilbronner, wrote A Philatelic Ramble through Chemistry. He has a number of different collections, including one of stamps on different metal foils. He has enthusiastic audiences for his talk, "Great Mistakes in Science," and he has written an article about mistakes on stamps. Miller provides a number of general observations within the interview. He thinks that Raman spectroscopy is still going strong, but that infrared is leveling off. He believes that education should be difficult, and that not everyone needs a college degree; that education in grade schools is abysmal; and that teachers should learn their subjects, not theories of education. He laments the demise of the home chemistry set; he regrets the virtual techniques that permit students to avoid getting messy, techniques that prevent a real understanding of what students are doing. Miller says his most important award of the many he has received is his first, the Pittsburgh Award from the American Chemical Society. He enthusiastically discusses his many travels over the years, especially those with his sons. He has been to Africa, Nepal, Canada; and he has spent at least two nights in each of the fifty states and in fifty-two foreign countries. Miller concludes his interview with his four necessities for a happy retirement: a year-round hobby (he still collects stamps and gives slide lectures about his travels); enough money to be able to indulge the hobbies; a companion (he and his wife had been married for sixty-five years before she died five years ago); and good health. As he told his doctor, Miller, now ninety-six, is "shooting for a hundred." 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1937 Hamline University BS
1942 Johns Hopkins University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

University of Minnesota

1942 to 1944
National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in Chemistry

University of Illinois at Chicago

1944 to 1948
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Mellon Institute for Industrial Research

1948 to 1958
Head, Spectroscopy Division
1958 to 1967
Senior Fellow, Independent Research
1967 to 1974
Adjunct Senior Fellow

University of Pittsburgh

1952 to 1964
Lecturer in Chemisty
1964 to 1967
Adjunct Professor of Chemistry
1967 to 1981
University Professor; Professor of Chemistry; Head, Spectroscopy Laboratory
1981 to 2012
Professor Emeritus

Philatelia Chimica et Physica

1997 to 2004


Year(s) Award

Guggenheim Fellow


Pittsburgh Spectroscopy Award


Pittsburgh Award, American Chemical Society


Hasler Award, Society of Applied Spectroscopy

Table of Contents

The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy

Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh (SSP). Mary E. Warga. Society of Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh (SACP). American Chemical Society. Decision to combine the annual meetings of the SACP and SSP to form the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon). Employment market. Innovations in industry. Origins of the meeting time. Program Committee. William Penn Hotel. Changing emphasis of conferences. Passing down of accumulated knowledge among organizers and system of succession. Industry in and importance of Pittsburgh. Symposia.

Changes in Analytical Instrumentation

Electronics. Computers. Advent of infrared spectroscopy. Mass spectrometry. Chromatography. Wet chemistry. Emission spectroscopy. Microwave spectrometry. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). Changes in Pittcon. Raman spectroscopy. Arnold O. Beckman. Howard Cary. Howard Malmstadt. James Waters. A. J. P. Martin. Mellon Institute. University of Pittsburgh (Pitt). Job offer from University of Kentucky. Love of teaching. Retirement from Pitt at age sixty-five.

Life after Retirement

Reflections on contributions to the field. Former students. Stamp collecting. Book co-authored with Edgar Heilbronner. Swiss Chemical Society. Philatelia Chimica et Physica.

Early Years

Born in Aurora, Illinois; grew up in Pepin, Wisconsin. Family background. Parents and five sisters. Life during Great Depression. Very small school. English teacher. Inspired by chemistry textbook.

College Years

Attends Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Chemistry major. Jobs while in school. Teaching assistantship at University of Nebraska; good organic chemistry program. Wanted to switch to physical chemistry.

Graduate School and Postdoctoral Years

Chemical Foundation Fellowship to Johns Hopkins University as Richard Lord's first graduate student. Helped Lord build Raman spectroscope. Learned infrared spectroscopy. World War II. After finishing PhD stayed at Hopkins for a while to teach class in analyzing explosives. Joseph Mayer. Frederick Wiselogle. Married Ruth Naomi Zeller. National Research Council postdoc under Bryce Crawford at University of Minnesota. Built infrared spectrograph with Robert Gledhill. Alfred Nier. Fourier transform and other periodic revolutionary changes. Baird Associates' double beam.

Beginning Career

Miller's first real teaching position at University of Illinois. Loved teaching. Taught physical chemistry. More technological advances in spectroscopy. Recruited to Mellon Institute. Harold Klug, former professor at University of Minnesota. Pittsburgh's funicular.

Mellon Institute and University of Pittsburgh

Serial number 1 Baird double beam and first Cary visible UV. Accepted position as head of spectroscopy at Mellon. Relationship between Mellon and University of Pittsburgh. Clean air. New instruments included Beckman series. Comprehensive paper with Charles Wilkins. Being both professor and lab head. Series of papers with William Fateley. Merger of Mellon with Carnegie Institute of Technology. Fifty-three years teaching summer course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With Dana Mayo and Robert Hanna wrote Course Notes on the Interpretation of Infrared and Raman Spectra. Notes translated into Chinese. Retired at sixty-five.


Collecting stamps. Cachets with Edwin Hodge and Robert Witkowski. Miller cachet as landmark scientist in analytical chemistry. A Philatelic Ramble through Chemistry with Edgar Heilbronner. Editor of Philatelia Chimica et Physica. His own various collections. "Foil Stamps on Foil" exhibit. Linn's Stamp News and Bombay Philatelic. "Great Mistakes in Science" talk. Chemical Mistakes on Chemical Stamps article.

General Observations

Thinks Raman spectroscopy is going strong, but infrared leveling off. Array detectors an advance. Thinks grade-school teachers should study their subjects, not education. Regrets demise of home chemistry sets. Believes students should learn from real, not virtual, experiments. His best award his first, Pittsburgh Award from American Chemical Society. Many post-retirement travels, especially with sons. Africa, Nepal, Canada. Has visited all fifty states and fifty-two countries. Still giving slide lectures. Balancing personal and work obligations. Four things necessary for a good retirement: good health; year-round hobby; enough money; companion. "Shooting for a hundred. "


About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

John Sharkey

John Sharkey is professor emeritus of chemistry at Pace University in New York City. He received his BS (1964), MS, (1968) and PhD (1970, under Seymour Lewin) degrees from New York University. At Pace he served as department chair, associate dean, and associate provost. He was elected a fellow of Dyson College in 1985 and received the Keenan Award for Teaching Excellence in 1988. He has been a member of the American Chemical Society (ACS) since 1969 and has served on the Committee on Nominations and Elections, the Society Committee on Education, the Board of Trustees for Member Insurance Plans, and the National Historic Chemical Landmarks Committee. He currently serves on the Board Standing Committee on Audits. At the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Sharkey is a charter member of the Heritage Council, representing the ACS, and the Bolton Society. Sharkey has been a longtime member of HIST, and is currently serving as the division’s archivist. He also serves as historian and archivist for the ACS New York Section, and was chair of the section in 1987. Sharkey’s research interests are in the history of chemistry. He was elected a fellow of the ACS in 2011.