Father of 'Origin of Life’
Chemistry at UC San Diego Dies

May 21, 2007

By Kim McDonald

Stanley Miller in 1999
Credit: James A. Sugar

Stanley L. Miller, an emeritus professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego whose famous laboratory experiments in 1952 demonstrated how the simple organic compounds considered necessary for the origin of life could have been synthesized on the primitive Earth, died yesterday. He was 77.

Miller, who had suffered a series of strokes since 1999 and was living in a nursing home in National City, south of San Diego, died at Paradise Hospital in National City.

One of the founding chemists of UCSD, Miller was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, working under the late Harold Urey, a Nobel laureate who later moved to La Jolla and founded UCSD’s chemistry department. On May 15, 1953, Miller published a paper in the journal Science detailing a novel experiment that produced the building blocks of life from nothing more than hydrogen, water, methane and ammonia.

No one then knew how the organic compounds found in life could have originated on the barren, primitive Earth, which Urey surmised had coalesced from a cloud of dust and was initially surrounded by an atmosphere of hydrogen, water, ammonia and methane—some of the major components of the universe.

Stanley Miller at University of Chicago
Credit: University of Chicago

So Miller put water and ammonia into a globe-shaped flask with hydrogen and methane gas, boiled the solution and zapped the contents with an electrical discharge to simulate lightning and coronal discharges in the atmosphere. Within a week, he had produced a “molecular soup” containing amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and of life itself.

“The public’s imagination was captivated by the outcome of the experiment,” said Jeffrey L. Bada, a professor of marine chemistry at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who was one of Miller’s graduate students at UCSD and a leading expert on the chemical origin of life. “By the time the results were corroborated by an independent group three years later, the metaphor of the ‘prebiotic soup’ had found its way into comic strips, cartoons, movies and novels.”

Miller, the first assistant professor of chemistry recruited to work at UCSD, continued his research into the chemical origins of life for over four decades in La Jolla and helped to establish the university’s strong tradition of interdisciplinary research.

“Like Roger Revelle, who built UCSD from the ‘top down’ with the best and the brightest, Miller and Urey were bold thinkers with a broad knowledge of science and gifted scientific intuitions who opened new disciplines in their quest to understand our origins,” said Mark Thiemens, dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at UCSD.

“Stanley Miller was the father of origin of life chemistry,” said Bada. “And he was a leader in that field for many decades, remaining active even after his first stroke in November, 1999. It was the Miller experiment that almost overnight transformed the study of the origin of life into a respectable field of inquiry.”

Stanley Miller was born in Oakland, Ca. on March 7, 1930. His father was an assistant district attorney in Oakland, appointed to his position by former California Governor and U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Stanley Miller at University of Chicago
Credit: University of Chicago

He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 1951 and his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1954. He spent a year at Caltech on a fellowship, then five more years at Columbia University before joining the faculty of the newly formed San Diego campus of the University of California.

Most of his research had been focused on the origin of life, especially the prebiotic synthesis of small molecules. In addition, he was a pioneer in the investigation of the natural occurrence of clathrate hydrates, the mechanism of the action of general anesthetics and the thermodynamics of bioorganic compounds.

Miller was a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. He received the Oparin Medal from the International Society of the Study of the Origin of Life in 1983 and was president of the society from 1986 to 1989. He was also an Honorary Counselor of the Higher Council for Scientific Research of Spain in 1973.

He is survived by his family consisting of his brother Donald, a retired physical chemist, and sister-in-law Miriam of Livermore, Ca; two nieces, Nancy Miller of Washington, DC and Lynne Miller Franco of Silver Spring, Md., and her two children, Lucio and Elena Franco of Silver Spring, Md.; and his devoted care-giver and companion Maria Morris.

No funeral service is planned, although a memorial service will be scheduled at a future date. Miller’s family requests that donations be sent to the Miller Archival Fund at UCSD Libraries.

 

Media Contact: Kim McDonald, 858-534-7572

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