In the fall of 1926, a memorial tablet was unveiled at Cobalt, dedicated to Willet Green Miller, “provincial geologist of Ontario, who gave to Cobalt its name and place among the great mining camps of the world; who read the secret of the rocks and opened the portal for the outpouring of their wonderful riches”.
By all accounts, Miller was a modest and reserved man, yet his sudden death in 1925 led to many tributes which attest to the high regard in which he was held by his peers. He ranks with Sir William Logan and George Dawson in terms of his contributions to knowledge of the geology of Canada and his vision of its mineral potential. A portrait of Miller, commissioned by the “mining men of Ontario”, still hangs today in the Legislative Building in Ontario. And in Sudbury, a modern research facility bears his name.
Canadian by birth, Miller graduated from the University of Toronto in 1890, with first-class honors in natural science. He then took post-graduate work at Harvard, Chicago, and Heidelberg Universities. During his vacations, he did a good deal of mapping for the Geological Survey, thus laying the foundation for the profound knowledge of this province’s geological structure for which he later became noted.
In 1902, Miller became the first provincial geologist for the province of Ontario, and it was in this capacity that he did his greatest works. He was the first to recognize the importance of the discoveries in Cobalt, at a time when no precious metals were being mined in northern Ontario.
The original claims were staked for copper, and a specimen was sent to Miller who identified that it in fact contained nickel and cobalt. Miller decided to check out the nickel occurrence, and while on the ground found a boulder containing silver, the first recognition of that metal in the region. His foresight and skill in shaping the Cobalt camp were to bring him worldwide prominence, and he was awarded the gold medal of the Institute of Mining and Metallurgy of London in 1915.
An earlier achievement involved Miller’s discovery of a method to identify diamonds, emeralds, corundum and emery using X-rays. This method was subsequently used in prospecting for commodities such as corundum, an abrasive, and led to the establishment of an industry in eastern Ontario. At the peak of production in 1906, Ontario supplied 82% of the world’s corundum.
Miller was widely recognized as an authority on the Precambrian stratigraphy of Canada. He published widely, both in government reports and scientific journals, and also found time to write a text on “Minerals and how they occur”. He had a knack for communicating in non-technical language and became noted as one of the greatest publicity agents the mining industry in Ontario and Canada ever had.
Miller’s place in Canadian mining history is not only ensured by his many achievements. He is also remembered as a man of sterling character, “who loved science for its own sake, and the application of science for his country’s sake”.