Nora Miller

Zoologist

All photographs relating to Nora Miller were kindly provided by her family, who gave permission for their reproduction.

  • BORN 7th September 1898, Dunipace, Stirlingshire, Scotland
  • DIED 23rd March 1994, Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland
  • WORKED Glasgow University, Paisley College
  • HONOURS Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1954

Entry by Catherine Booth

Artistic Connections

Nora was an accomplished pianist, and played the organ, often for church services. She was also a beautiful singer.

Music

Title:  The Sea of Life
Composer: Frances M Lynch
Words by: Frances M Lynch in collaboration with Catherine Booth
Arranged by: Frances M Lynch in collaboration with Margaret Cameron and Herbie Clarke
Written in: 2018
For: children’s voices and guitar
Performed by: P6 Raploch Primary School, P7 Riverside Primary School and Herbie Clarke

The piece was written for the Echoes Tour in 2018 and first performed at the Engine Shed in Stirling on September 18th 2018. It reflects the excitement of Nora’s life and that of her favourite fish – the Lungfish!

Education

Westbourne School for Girls, Glasgow; Skerry’s College. Glasgow; Glasgow University. Started to study medicine at Glasgow, but changed course to Zoology – graduated MA in 1920;  Glasgow University – PhD in 1962

Occupations

Zoology demonstrator
Immediately after graduation, Nora began to work as a demonstrator in the Zoology Department at Glasgow University

A zoology class at Glasgow University. The white-coated figure at the far end of the bench on the left is believed to be Nora Miller

Lecturer – Glasgow University
She was promoted to Assistant Lecturer in the Zoology Department in 1924, then Lecturer in 1929, and remained in that post until she retired

Lecturer – Paisley College
After retirement from Glasgow University, she started up a zoology course at Paisley College, and taught there herself for a number of years

Zoologist
Nora carried out her own zoological research while employed as a lecturer, concentrating on marine species such as lungfish and sharks. Lungfish have a swim bladder which acts like a lung, through which they breathe air

An underwater photograph taken by Nora Miller

Amateur diver
Nora much enjoyed diving using a helmet and weights, to observe marine species in the wild.  She sometimes captured a specimen, and was careful to bring it to the surface in a container of seawater taken from its own marine environment, so as to keep it alive as long as possible.

Amateur photographer
Nora was one of the first people to take photographs underwater, and made one of the first underwater films in colour.  The location of this reel of film is not at present known.

Traveller
She delighted in travelling overseas, to countries such as Australia, South Africa, Bermuda and Italy, and combined tourism and leisure with work-related visits to marine laboratories and sites of interest to marine science.

Scientific Achievements

Copy of one of Nora Miller’s papers, inscribed by Nora herself to her sister, Betty

  • She carried out research into the evolution and development of lungfish, especially the South American lungfish, Lepidosiren paradoxa, and published several papers on this topic.
  • A curiosity for palaeontologists had been a tiny fossil, 20 to 60 millimetres long, first described in 1890.  It was discovered in large quantities in Achannaras slate quarry in Caithness, and named Palaeospondylus gunni.  The specimen was unlike any known living creature or fossil ever found, and scholars could not agree on the species to which it belonged.  Nora Miller became interested and proposed in 1930 that it was the larval form of a member of the Dipnoi, or lungfish family. This view was thought to be very improbable by prominent zoologists. In 2003, an article in the journal, Nature, produced evidence that Palaeospondylus gunni was indeed a larval lungfish.  There is still debate on this hypothesis.
  • Another of her research interests was the anatomy of birds, with comparisons between species

Did You Know?

On her diving expeditions, she was often accompanied by a friend, whose job it was to pump oxygen into her breathing tube.  When her friend protested that she was finding this very hard work, she was cursorily instructed – “It doesn’t matter.  Just keep pumping!”

Playing the piano and the organ were almost second nature to her.  She assumed everyone could do it, and asked her niece one day to take over from her in the church, thinking it unimportant that her niece had never actually had any lessons in organ-playing.

On a dive off Bermuda in the 1930s. The air tube can be seen in the bottom right corner.

An Inspiring Woman

Nora was noted as an enthusiastic and articulate lecturer, who had a talent for engaging and engrossing her student audience.  Zoology was part of the curriculum for medical students, so she frequently had very large university classes.  Several generations of students were fortunate enough to be taught by her. Yet she did not restrict her teaching to students at university level, but devoted several years after her retirement to the introduction and teaching of zoology to college students.

She was a pioneer in her field of zoology as well as in underwater exploration, at a time when few women were involved in these activities. She deserves to be much better known as a role model for young people today.

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