Faculty member Bob Millikan dies

Tragic loss

Faculty member Bob Millikan passed away October 7. His death was sudden, although it followed an illness of several years. Many of us were stunned, shocked and deeply saddened. We were overcome with a great sense of loss.

At age 55, Bob had already done so much, but he had so much work left to do. When I became dean, I hadn’t really thought about anyone in our School community dying. I hadn’t thought about being involved in planning memorials or speaking at them. Nor had I anticipated the grief of family members and the extended family of faculty and staff members, students and alumni. Over the last few years, we’ve lost several faculty members under age 60, tragically before their expected lifetimes were complete.


Bob Millikan accepts the Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professorship of Cancer Epidemiology, 2008
Bob Millikan accepts the Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professorship of Cancer Epidemiology, 2008

I knew Bob for more than 20 years and had gotten to know him better after I became dean, and he reached out to me. I liked him enormously. He was one of the most caring, compassionate and curious people I’ve ever met. He treated people with decency and respect and was committed to increasing the School’s diversity and inclusiveness. Bob was a brilliant scientist who contributed to the discovery of triple negative breast cancer, a subtype which seems to explain why young African American women often are diagnosed with a more deadly form of breast cancer than white women and more often succumb to their breast cancers. In 2008, Bob became the Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor of Cancer Epidemiology, partly because of his transformational research on breast cancer. We were thrilled. The evening of the award was a special one for Bob, Barbara Hulka, who had been Bob’s mentor and muse, and all of us in attendance.

A brilliant scientist, great listener, volunteer with advocacy organizations…

Most researchers don’t get involved with the breast cancer advocacy community. Bob did. More should.  He taught epidemiology to Project LEAD participants for many years, and they loved him. Women who met and collaborated with Bob through Project LEAD wrote about his gentle manner, wry wit, patience, interest in them, his great capacity for listening and offering encouragement, and the fact that he was so good at making difficult concepts understandable. He had great gifts.

A former UNC public health student, now an alumnus, wrote how he became interested in public health, because Bob had been one of the coaches on the men’s rowing team.

A brilliant scientist, volunteer with advocacy organizations, rowing coach…

Neighbors wrote about how they opened their windows to listen when Bob played the violin. Apparently, he especially loved Dvořák.

A brilliant scientist, volunteer with advocacy organizations, rowing coach, who also played violin.

Bob Millikan
Bob Millikan

One comment after another reflected upon Bob Millikan, the person, his concern about people’s lives and not just their work, how he remembered them even when they did not think of themselves as distinctive, and how he gave them support, encouragement and courage. Many former students said Bob helped them to keep going, and years after they finished their degrees, they said he was partly responsible for the kinds of people and professionals they had become. Bob Millikan was the consummate teacher, researcher and human being.

The campus community will celebrate Bob’s life Thursday, Oct. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. The family will host a memorial service on Friday, Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. at The Chapel of the Cross. All are welcome. Learn more and leave remembrances online. Many tears will be shed. We’ve lost a great researcher, colleague, member of our community, advocate and friend.


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