Christina Cruikshank Miller (1899 - 2001)
A distinguished career in Chemistry led her to be one of the first five women to be elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
On Friday 17 October 2014 a ceremony took place at the University’s School of Chemistry to celebrate the life and work of Christina Cruikshank Miller and to acknowledge her impact by renaming a building after her.
Located behind the original Joseph Black Building, the Christina Miller Building that houses both research laboratories and the School's teaching laboratories is a fitting tribute to a pioneering chemist who studied and worked at the University until 1961.
An unsound beginning
Born the elder of two sisters in Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire in 1899, Christina contracted measles and rubella as a child, which left her hearing badly damaged and initially prevented her from pursuing the career in teaching that matched her wide ranging academic skills.
Instead, inspired by a magazine article that suggested industrial analytical chemistry as a career for girls, she successfully undertook a three year course at the University of Edinburgh, combined with a four-year diploma in industrial chemistry at the then Heriot-Watt College.
Despite her hearing difficulties and the additional pressures of studying during wartime, she graduated BSc in 1920 with special distinction, won her class medal, and was awarded the Vans Dunlop Scholarship, which allowed her to undertake research for her PhD.
A necessary linguist
Impressed by the work of Sir James Walker, the University’s Professor of Chemistry, Miller approached him with the hopes of working for her doctorate under him. He instructed her to return in a year’s time once she had learned German, as much of the important literature of the time was written in the language.
Undeterred, she learnt the language whilst commuting between Edinburgh and her home in Fife, and in 1921 took up her place at the University researching the validity of the Stokes-Einstein Law. She was awarded her PhD in 1924.
Among her many achievements was producing the first sample of pure phosphorus trioxide in 1928. By showing that no light was emitted from the purified material, she was able to prove that it was not responsible for the glow emitted from phosphorus, as had been claimed by others.
This important work, which led to five papers, was at the time described as being,
the greatest advance in knowledge of the topic in the last 20 years.
The paper was awarded the Keith Medal from the Royal Society of Edinburgh and also led Christina to obtain her Doctor of Science (DSc) award. Following this, she was granted a lectureship with tenure at the University.
An explosive teacher
Dr Miller’s work on phosphorus chemistry ended prematurely in 1930 when an explosion cost her the sight in one eye. Ever the pragmatist, Christina simply focused her energies into analytical chemistry and into the careers of her research students.
In 1933 she was appointed director of the teaching laboratory and, through her commitment to innovation and new technology, strove to ensure that chemistry students received a thorough grounding in analytical chemistry.
Because of this care and attention, Dr Miller is remembered as much for her commitment to her students as for her many academic and scientific achievements.
Health and family commitments led to her early retirement in 1961 and she died in 2001.
She inspired logical thinking like no one else I’ve ever known; she would encourage endless debate and argument (reserving the option of switching off her hearing aid only in the most extreme of situations).