The unique thing about museum collections is how the most innocuous things can have amazing stories. No object better embodies this notion than a pair of pince-nez that once belonged to Dr Robert Miller.
This object was donated to the Tayside Medical History Museum by a kind gentleman from the United States who had found it in a sale and felt it should return here to Dundee. As I was volunteering in the museum when it arrived, the task fell to me to research Dr Miller and his practice, the Eye Dispensary.
I expected to find some simple biographical facts and professional information. Indeed, I found just that: he practised in Dundee between 1889 and 1939. However, this information was peppered in between stories of a most colourful character.
Contrary to our initial belief, the Eye Dispensary was not associated with the much better known Dundee Eye Institute, which was a clinic that treated the disadvantaged. Indeed, he had once got in trouble for treating a woman who had wanted to go to a doctor at the latter organisation. In court, he defended his practice’s name, saying “no smart person would confuse the two”, despite the fact that they were just a few doors apart on Nethergate (at 80 and 86)! Clearly, we at the museum are not smart then.
Multiple articles from his time describe him taking patients to small debts court. Dr Miller’s financial disputes litter the newspaper archives. According to the articles, he always conducted his own cases. Visitors to the courts could be assured of “good entertainment” when he was there.
Indeed, Dr Miller went to court so often that the Dundee Sheriff once told him to “go away” when, in the middle of dealing with one case, he dredged up a prior case he wanted to complain about. Even four months before his death, there is record of him winning another case for payment.
He did not just sue patients – tenants also felt his wrath. The good doctor was a prolific landlord. In 1936, he was made to pay back overcharges he made on rent with the excuse that he had installed electric lighting. He also had a case dismissed from court after he tried to sue a business for putting up advertisements on his property without paying.
In true Scrooge spirit, doing well for himself did not prevent Dr Miller from being exceptionally thrifty with his money. One 1913 article from The Scotsman describes a lawsuit in which he was, for once, the defendant. The town council sued him for a penny of tram fares which he disputed due to the unclear boundaries between fare zones. Even in those days, a penny was a tiny amount.
Dr Miller was not just a frequent flyer in the debt courts; he also made an appearance in criminal ones. As far back as 1909, he was summoned to court with two other men, charged with presenting forged insurance documents, though he was eventually acquitted. One would think charges of forgery, fraud, and conspiracy would be sobering for anybody, but not Dr Miller. In 1931, he fraudulently claimed expenses for practising dentistry under a partner’s name, despite not being a registered dentist himself. In 1932, he was struck off the National Health Insurance Panel at the request of other doctors. It is unclear if this is related to the prior case, but it is easy to make the connection.
On top of this, the good doctor seems to have had quite an ego. He once applied for the job of Interim Chief Medical Officer for Dundee’s School Board, asking £450 (around £31k today) for his salary while only working 20 hours a week. They hired another man at a more modest rate of £350 (£24k) for a full workweek.
In all the articles about him, the doctor displays a unshakable faith in his own beliefs. His obituary describes him going up to smokers in public (he was a fervent anti-smoker) and yelling at them in English, German and Italian.
In fairness to Dr Miller, he was by all accounts good at his job and highly qualified, with medical degrees from Glasgow and Cambridge. He was a striking, stubborn, opinionated man with a parsimonious streak. At the time of his death in 1939, he was Dundee’s longest-serving doctor, having practised for 50 years.
Not bad for a story contained within a pair of eyewear.
Scottish Prohibitionist, “Dundee Doctor’s Fee for Eye Operation”, 21st Jan 1911, University of Dundee Archive Services, MS 61/1/4/17
Dr Robert Miller, Off-print of letter of Robert Miller to the Dundee Advertiser, concerning the Dundee Eye Institution, 28th Oct 1910, University of Dundee Archive Services, MS 61/1/4/16
Dr Robert Miller, Robert Miller, Dundee, to the members of Forfar County Council. States intention to apply for the post of Medical Officer of Health., 30 Mar 1908, University of Dundee Archive Services, MS 61/1/4/7
“Insurance Policy Charges at Dundee”, The Scotsman, 7th April 1909, p.11
“Dundee Authorities and Insurance Policies”, Dundee Courier, 7th April 1909, p.4
“Dr Robert Miller is Acquitted of Charges of Conspiracy, Forgery and Fraud”, Dundee Courier, 1st June 1901, p.5
“Dundee Tramway Case,” The Scotsman, 22nd October 1913, p. 14
“Dundee Professor Appointed”, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11th December 1917, p.3
“Eye Institution V. Eye Dispensary” Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26th November 1918, p.3
“”Go Away Now” Says Sheriff Neish”, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 10th June 1919, p. 10
“Removed from Panel,” Edinburgh Evening News, 21st July 1932, p. 2
“Name to the Removed from Panel”, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 21st July 1932, p. 8
“Dundee Doctor’s Protest in Court”, Dundee Courier, 21st August 1934, p.5
“Landlord Wins Stair Lighting Claim”, Dundee Courier, 17th June 1396, p.11
“Death of Dundee’s Oldest Doctor”, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 19th July 1939, p.5
“Well-Known Dundee Doctor Dead”, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 17th July 1939, p.4
Dundee Courier, 8th March 1939, p. 8
“Irregularity in connection with dental benefit” in Supplement to the British Medical Journal, 13th June 1931, 1931;1:S233, pp.240-241