Member Spotlight

F DeWolfe Miller, a real life Indiana Jones

December 27, 2011 | Author: AAAS MemberCentral Project Director and Managing Editor Peggy Mihelich
F DeWolfe Miller, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hawaii steers his sailboat Aeolus off the coast of Oahu. (Photo: Peggy Mihelich)

From the deck of Aeolus, Capt. F DeWolfe Miller checks the depth of the water with a hand-held device. “100 feet” he says with a smile. The 42-foot, double ended Valiant cuts through the water at roughly 7.5 knots, its sails grabbing air to speed it along Oahu’s southern coastline. On our port (left) side, about a dozen sailboats from the Waikiki Yacht Club swiftly pass us.

“Don’t mind them,” Miller tells our crew. Their skippers are eager to make the loop from Honolulu Harbor to Diamond Head and back in time for Friday happy hour at the club’s well-stocked bar. “We’re in no rush; we’ll be back in time for dinner,” he assures us.

Passing Waikiki Beach, with its iconic hotels and mix of water sport activities, one can just make out tourists in the waves testing out their surfing skills. The mountains of Oahu tower over Honolulu, and ahead, Diamond Head crater rises dramatically out of the landscape, its graceful long crescent slope ending in the Pacific.

“I know this is Hawaii, but today is an especially beautiful day for a sunset sail,” observes Miller, hauling up the jib and giving Aeolus a little more speed.

Sailing is just one of Miller's many passions, which also include riding horses and motorcycles, free diving, discovering and studying Egyptian mummies, and expertly cracking a bullwhip should the need arise. “You’re Indiana Jones,” I tell him. He smiles at the comparison with the popular movie character.

View photos of F DeWolfe Miller sailing, diving, riding and much more

But Miller's greatest passion is infectious disease. He's an epidemiologist at the University of Hawaii and for the last 20 years he's been tracking and documenting an outbreak of Hepatitis C in Egypt. Fifteen percent of the population has been infected with the virus and 10 to 13 percent are also infectious with the blood-borne pathogen that causes it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Egypt has the highest prevalence of Hepatitis C in the world.

Hepatitis C leads to inflammation of the liver and in some cases liver cancer. It is spread by blood-to-blood contact. Many people infected do not develop symptoms until much later on in life – sometimes decades after their initial infection. Hepatitis C can be treated with medication and between 51-80 percent of treated patients are cured, according to the NIH.

Miller is lobbying for funds to help the Egyptian government and its people build a program that will reduce transmission of Hepatitis C. “We can beat this,” he says, adding, “we just need to get things to crystallize.”

Miller is on a crusade. How he got to this point is as winding and twisting as the story of the fictional character he resembles.

F DeWolfe Miller, was born in 1943 and raised in east Tennessee on a farm about 100 miles north of Knoxville, between the Cumberland Mountains and Appalachia.  He’s from a long line of F DeWolfe Millers, one even fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. And what does the F stand for? “Beats me,” he says. He answers to Dr. Miller or as his friends call him, De.

The Millers were educated people of German decent; his father was a professor of English at the University of Tennessee (UT). The family grew tobacco because it made money. Miller grew up splitting his time between the city and working on the farm. It was wonderful, he says, reflecting back on his youth. But it was also overbearing. Miller came of age in the 1960s when seemingly “everything was happening in a place called Berkeley,” he says, his eyes popping with excitement. “I had to get the hell of there.”

So after getting his Master’s in Microbiology from UT, Miller packed his bags and spent five years traveling the world. “I was a hippie,” he chuckles. He spent a good amount of time in the Middle East, particularly Iran, where to earn some needed cash he taught biology to medical students in Shiraz. “It’s the town of 1001 nights, where Scheherazade told all her stories,” he says. “It was a magical time and place.” At the end of the year he bought a German motorcycle for $100 and drove it through Afghanistan, on into Pakistan, across into India, and finally ending in mountainous Nepal.

To cover his living expenses, Miller got a job at a hospital laboratory outside of Katmandu. There, he says, a little white-haired lady taught him parasitology. “The Nepalis don’t have one parasite, they have multiple parasites,” he explains. “You would see live filariasis in the blood smears. It was like, 'Wow, what was that?' " Nepal hooked Miller on infectious disease. “I realized you could do a lot with a little and have a big impact,” he says.