North Carolina, Public Health

A moving experience

March 24, 2015

Ann Millikan’s symphony

Friday night, the Chapel Hill Philharmonia played the Millikan Symphony for the first time. It was held at Hill Hall, one of many buildings I’d never been to on the UNC campus and a very intimate, special place. Ann Millikan, the composer of the symphony, is an amazing woman who was very close to her brother, Bob Millikan, our epidemiology faculty member who died in 2012.

Dr. Robert Millikan

Dr. Robert Millikan, when he accepted the Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professorship of Cancer Epidemiology at the World of Difference dinner in 2008.

Bob was a colleague; I’d like to think he considered me a friend. Those of us who knew and admired Bob still miss him, and for his family members, the loss is greater still. When a member of our faculty, staff or student community dies prematurely, it is painful for many people. Bob’s loss reverberated through the many dimensions of his life.

Ann is a composer by profession, and she and Bob had shared music from their earliest years, even having had the vision of the Millikan Symphony when she was only four years old. She said she created the symphony to bring together the parts of Bob’s life, each marked by excellence and commitment—science, the natural world, rowing, and violin.

Before earning a Doctor of Philosophy, Bob was trained as a veterinarian. He was part of our motivation for co-developing with Jay Levine, DVM, MPH, at N.C. State University, a Master of Public Health degree tract within the veterinary program. Bob was part of a team that made fundamental discoveries about breast cancer etiology, including the finding of a type of breast cancer that is more frequent in African-American women and seems to explain some of their higher mortality. As was true for his sister, music was a big part of Bob’s life, and Ann recounted the story of his being heard playing violin outside the veterinary emergency room when he was in school. Bob and his family also shared a love of nature, and he coached the rowing team at UNC-Chapel Hill for some time. In doing so, he mentored young people and brought some of them into science.

Bob was nothing short of amazing and remarkable. I liked him very much. He sent me one of the earliest congratulatory notes when I became dean, and one of the highlights of my first term was when we awarded him the Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professorship.

I consider myself a music naif. I’ve had too little time for too many years to develop expertise. However, like others in the audience, I was transfixed Friday night. Ann created a symphony that reflected her brother’s rich, sonorous life, and it was stunning. Virtuoso Jennifer Curtis created sounds with her violin that I’ve never heard before. The rowing part of the symphony was especially moving; it felt as though we were on the water with him, moving freely and swiftly through it.

The Millikan Symphony is a living memorial to a spectacular person.


Want to leave a comment or contact us?
The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.