Miller, William Hallowes (DNB00)

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MILLER, WILLIAM HALLOWES (1801–1880), mineralogist, born 6 April 1801, at Velindre, near Llandovery, was son of Captain Miller by a second marriage. The father had served in the American war, and the associations of the family were military. The son, after receiving his earlier education at private schools, proceeded to St. John's College, Cambridge, and graduated as fifth wrangler in 1826. He was elected to a college fellowship in 1829, and to the professorship of mineralogy in 1832. In accordance with the statutes he proceeded in 1841 to the degree of M.D. in order to retain his fellowship, which, however, he vacated by marriage with Harriet Susan Minty in 1844. They had two sons and four daughters, but one of the former and two of the latter died before their father.

An occasional visit to the continent, often more or less on scientific business, but sometimes extended to a holiday trip in the Eastern Alps, alone interrupted the round of Miller's daily work in his university. A diligent student and lover of science, with a memory singularly accurate and retentive, he possessed an exceptionally wide knowledge of natural philosophy; but it was in crystallography, a branch of his special science, that his great reputation was won. Starting from the groundwork already laid by Whewell and Neumann, Miller developed a system of crystallography which was far more simple, symmetrical, and adapted to mathematical calculations than any which had yet been devised. His system ‘gave expressions adapted for working all the problems that a crystal can present, and it gave them in a form that appealed at once to the sense of symmetry and appropriateness of the mathematician … he thus placed the keystone into the arch of the science of crystallography’ (Professor Maskelyne). Miller's system was published in 1838; it quickly obtained favour, and has more than maintained its ground with mineralogists.

Another important work in which Miller had a large share was the reconstruction of the standards of length and weight which had been destroyed in 1834 when the houses of parliament were burnt. He took part in more than one royal commission for this purpose, and gave an account of the operations for restoring the value of the old standard of weight in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ for 1856. He was also of great service on the Commission Internationale du Mètre, to which he was appointed in 1870. He received the honorary degrees of LL.D. from Dublin in 1865, of D.C.L. from Oxford in 1876, and was re-elected a fellow of his old college in 1874. He was admitted into the Royal Society in 1838, was foreign secretary from 1856 to 1873, and was awarded a royal medal in 1870. He was a knight of the order of St. Maurice and St. Lazare in Italy, of the order of Leopold in Belgium, and a corresponding member of many foreign societies, including the French Academy. In 1876 his health began to fail; he had a slight stroke of paralysis in the autumn, and after a slow decline of the vital powers he died on 20 May 1880.

Before the work on crystallography mentioned above Miller had published brief but valuable text-books on hydrostatics and hydrodynamics. He contributed largely to scientific publications, no less than 45 papers appearing in the ‘Royal Society's Catalogue.’ He also contributed very largely to a new edition of William Phillips's ‘Elementary Introduction to Mineralogy’—‘a monument to Miller's name, though he almost expunged that name from it’ (Maskelyne).

Miller was a short, rather square-set man, with a roundish face, placid expression, and well-developed forehead. Though of retiring habits, and caring little for society, he was not only respected, but even beloved, by those who enjoyed his friendship. His knowledge, his vigour and grasp of mind, and his inventiveness were all remarkable, and he accomplished much with very simple means, some of his laboratory fittings being of the homeliest kind.

[Obituary notices in Proc. Royal Society, No. 206, 1880, by the present writer; and by Professor Maskelyne in Nature, xxii. 247; Memorial by Mrs. Miller (privately printed).]

T. G. B.