University of Otago Otago Medical School Alumni Association

Obituary - Professor John Miles

Professor Miles was in the Department of Microbiology, Otago Medical School from 1955 to 1978. We reprint the following obituary from the Otago Daily Times (14 February 2004), by kind permission of the Editor.

Professor John Miles

Professor John Miles

Professor John Miles will be remembered for his pioneering work in microbiology and for establishing New Zealand’s first academic department in the subject, at the University of Otago, in 1955. John Arthur Reginald Miles, an Emeritus Professor since 1979, died following a brief illness, aged 90, on 20 January 2004 in Wanaka. He was described recently by Sandy Smith, his former student and Professor in the Department of Microbiology, as the "father of microbiology in New Zealand" for his work at the University, as President of the Royal Society of New Zealand and as a member of the Medical Research Council.

Professor Miles was born on 13 May 1913, in Sidcup, Kent, England. The only child of older parents, he was interested in the natural world as a youngster and also developed a passion for spaniels. The family photograph album proudly contains many portraits of dogs that lived with his family. Professor Miles was educated at Monkton Combe School, Bath, before attending Cambridge University. He continued his medical education at St Thomas's Hospital, London, where he was a casualty officer, anaesthetist, house physician and pathology trainee. In 1942 he joined the British Army as a graded pathologist and captain in the Medical Corps. His army career consisted mostly of research and this sparked his interest in virology. In 1951 Professor Miles moved to Adelaide, Australia, where he married his first wife, Ruth Herbert French. The couple had met earlier in Devon. Living in the hills outside Adelaide, he began breeding English Springer spaniels and kept chickens, while working as a medical research fellow at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science. In 1955 he was appointed to Otago University as the first Professor of Microbiology.

In Australia, Professor Miles had been seconded to the army to conduct insect research at Woomera. In New Zealand, he was a major in the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps. His research into infectious and microbial diseases, viruses and particularly arthropod-borne diseases (such as the mosquito borne Ross River virus and dengue fever) required travel. Much of his research took place in Fiji, where he was later to help establish and direct the Wellcome Virus Research Laboratory in the 1960s and 1970s and where he worked as a consultant from 1972 to 1981. He also travelled widely, elsewhere in the Pacific and in Europe, South America, the Antarctic and behind the Iron Curtain in Russia. Professor Smith recalls "He was part of a World Health Organisation expert committee looking at the spread via migrating birds, country to country. There was a big tie-up with the Russians. They had a lot of those arboviruses and he had plenty of visits (to the Department) from six-foot-six guys in grey trench coats, who were security. They were followed later by scientists carrying a couple of bottles of vodka".

Professor Miles had an international and influential reputation at a time when microbiology was still a budding science, and although he seldom said much, when he did, everybody listened, Professor Smith said. "He was very powerful like that. He knew when to speak and was a great supporter of staff".

Professor Miles was in charge of the Microbiology Department for 23 years, building it from a small group of four or five undergraduate students in the 1950s to a Department that has experienced a large growth in postgraduate students and now has its own building. Previously, microbiology was taught as a bacteriology subject, part of a preventive-medicine degree, and was not really considered a science in its own right. Now, the Department has 120 second-year students, with 50 in their third year and 55 postgraduate students. Professor Smith attributes that growth to the Department’s first Professor. "In those days you were very lucky if there would be one post-graduate student," Professor Smith said. The Otago University Rowing Club also benefited from Professor Miles’s input and he coached teams for several years. He had developed a passion for the sport at Cambridge, where he was the bowman for the Caius College First Lent Boat team in 1932-33.

Professor and Mrs Miles were hospitable folk, who invited many people to their Dunedin home for dinner. The couple purchased a holiday home in Hawea in the 1970s and enjoyed long summer holidays there. Their two daughters, Eleanor Miles and Deborah Preston, described their father as an excellent storyteller, a lover of the outdoors, of gardening, fishing, walking and dogs - and as the possessor of a raised eyebrow that would silently ask "Do you really think so?" Mrs Miles died in 1980, aged 63. In 1985, Professor Miles married Vi Miller, a family friend who had lived in Scotland for many years. She returned to New Zealand and they shared their retirement in Hawea until Mrs Miller died last year.

Another important thread in Professor Miles' life was his Anglican faith. He was actively involved with St Paul’s Cathedral in Dunedin and St Columba Church in Wanaka, where he helped with services, was a lay reader and minister and helped with fund-raising for building extensions. He was a life member of the St Martin's Island community in Dunedin.

Professor Miles' published works included Infectious Diseases: Colonising the Pacific (1997), and original papers, reviews and chapters in scientific journals and books. He received a CBE in 1971, was the recipient of many other awards honouring his scientific work, and was a member of more than 30 professional organizations. Professor Miles is survived by his daughters.

Bulletin 27, 2004/2005