Tom Miya: Leading with Patience and Dignity

The School’s seventh dean overcame great adversity in his journey to become a dedicated teacher and mentor

Story by Kelly Collins | Published May 2, 2023

Headshot of Tom S. Miya

Tom Miya was a renowned pharmacist and academic who served as Dean of the UNC School of Pharmacy for over a decade. The son of Japanese immigrant fruit farmers, Tom thrived on a challenge. During his life, he persevered through significant obstacles in part because of talent, timing, and gaman, a Buddhist philosophy that he learned from his father.

For the Miya family, the United States was paradoxically a land of opportunity and inequity. His parents toiled in the fruit orchards of central California to create a better life for their children. Tom—who graduated second in his high school class—was the fourth Miya child to go to college.

He was a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, when bombs fell on the US naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Tom knew the surprise attack meant war, and that his future was suddenly uncertain due to his Japanese heritage.

Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that forced more than 120,000 people into internment camps, including American citizens like Tom.

In the face of this unfairness, Tom’s parents remained steadfast in their resolve. They embraced the spirit of gaman, meaning enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. Tom and his siblings heard a common refrain from his father: “Be like the bamboo, bend with the wind, but do not break.”  

The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council devised a way for college-age internees to leave the internment camps. Taking advantage of this, Tom applied to about a dozen universities and was accepted only by the University of Nebraska.

After joining the ROTC, his life in Nebraska moved along smoothly. Two weeks before graduation, Tom received draft orders and had to report for duty. A high scorer on the Army’s IQ test, Tom served in military intelligence until he was granted an honorable discharge to finish his degree. He earned both a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and master’s degree from Nebraska.

Tom then moved with his new wife Midori to Indiana. He earned a doctorate in pharmacology from Purdue University, where he taught and conducted research for most of the next three decades. He and Midori had a daughter, Pam, who would go on to become a nurse.

A well-known research scholar and leader in pharmacy education, Tom was elected president of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) in 1975. His passion for innovation led him to UNC. When Tom visited Chapel Hill to be interviewed for the dean’s position, he saw a tremendous amount of potential for growth in the Triangle area and on the campus.

Tom served as dean of the UNC School of Pharmacy from 1977 to 1992. Under his leadership, the School expanded its innovative research programs in areas such as drug discovery, pharmacogenomics, and pharmacy practice. Tom also established several new initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion in pharmacy education, including a program to support underrepresented minority students pursuing careers in pharmacy.

He is best remembered as a dedicated teacher and mentor to numerous students and aspiring pharmacists. With an engaging teaching style, Tom had a unique ability to make complex pharmaceutical concepts easy to understand. He also conducted groundbreaking research in pharmacodynamics, biochemical pharmacology and toxicology, which led to numerous publications in prestigious scientific journals.

“Dean Miya was an exceptional leader, mentor, and friend,” said Dr. Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, former Dean of the UC San Francisco School of Pharmacy. “His passion for pharmacy education and research inspired countless students and colleagues.”

While much of Tom’s life was dedicated to his professional pursuits, he made time for a number of hobbies. He had a talent in capturing beautiful images of nature and landscapes. An avid hiker, Tom enjoyed spending time exploring the natural beauty of the North Carolina mountains and coast. He was also a fan of classical music and enjoyed traveling to experience new cultures.

Tom retired in 2006 and returned to Omaha, Nebraska, where he lived until he passed away in 2019. “Tom was a wonderful person and a true leader in pharmacy education and research,” reflected Professor Emeritus Dr. Dhiren Thakker. “He was always willing to lend a helping hand and his expertise to anyone who needed it. His legacy at UNC and in the field of pharmacy will never be forgotten.”