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Dr. Alice Solar Mills, pioneering Chicago doctor, dead at 92

Alice Solar Mills graduated from high school at 15, finished college at 18 and completed medical school at 22.

Of an estimated 170 doctors in the class of 1945 at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, she was one of about six women — “and I think only two ever practiced,” said her daughter, Dr. Amy Mills, a psychiatrist.

At one of her first jobs, she was hired as the house physician for the luxurious Hotel Sherman at Clark and Randolph, where the College Inn restaurant birthed the eponymous chicken broth still sold by the can in grocery stores.

“She became the youngest female doctor at a major Chicago hotel,” said her brother, Eugene Solar.

If anybody tried to rein her in with talk of traditional female roles, “She’d ignore them,” her brother said. “Alice was always sure of herself.”

Dr. Mills worked 40 years as a physician, first in internal medicine, then, at 40, shifting to allergies and immunology.

She died Jan. 19 at her Wilmette home at 92.

She was adventurous, curious and practical. About six months ago, Dr. Mills wanted to attend an event in Millennium Park. Rather than take a cab, she rode a CTA bus and the L with her cane and her caregiver, said her daughter.

Two or three years ago, “Alice was still swimming in Lake Michigan,” her brother said.

Her parents were from Kiev. Her mother, Sylvia Salgen Solar, traveled to Chicago at 13 for what was supposed to be a short visit with an uncle. Then, World War I erupted.

“The war broke out, and she couldn’t get home,” Eugene Solar said.

Sylvia wrote letters to relatives, but nothing came back. She never saw her family again. Family research suggests that her family was later slaughtered at Babi Yar in Kiev, site of an infamous World War II Nazi extermination of Jews and other prisoners.

Alice and Eugene’s father, Joseph Solar, slipped out of Ukraine by rail with two friends. “As teenagers, they hid in the boxcar to get out,” Eugene Solar said.

The trio stuck together all the way to Chicago. One of the three boys helped found Homer Furniture, he said. Joseph worked and earned money to help bring his five siblings and parents to America.

Sylvia and Joseph met and married in Chicago, where Joseph Solar operated a hardware store on Jefferson Street. They lived near the Garfield Park Conservatory on the West Side.

Alice went to Tuley High, which later became Clemente. Once the family moved north to Albany Park, she attended Von Steuben High School. Not only did she graduate at 15–she was class valedictorian, her daughter said.

“Alice zoomed through school,” Eugene Solar said.

She met her husband of 56 years in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Hired as a doctor for a girls’ summer camp, she went on a walk and wandered into a boys’ camp, Camp Ojibwa. “There was a guy digging a latrine,” her daughter said.

Alice Solar introduced herself and explained she was lost.

The latrine digger replied, “I’m Dr. Mills from Camp Ojibwa, and I’ll take you back.”

In the North Woods, she had met Girard Mills, “a nice Jewish doctor,” Amy Mills said. “My grandfather was really happy.”

Within months, they were married. They shared offices downtown, where he practiced as an internist.

“She was the best diagnostician,” said Anne Solar, her sister-in-law and patient. “She always could diagnose things that other people missed.”

Dr. Mills attributed her skill to her early training at Cook County Hospital, where, her brother said, “She said she saw everything under the sun.”

The doctors raised their two children in Evanston. She practiced at Evanston Hospital and was president of the Illinois Society of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Fascinated by the natural world, she used to take her kids tromping through the Cook County Forest Preserves. In her younger days, “She’d swim up from where we are, in the north end of Wilmette,” her brother said. “She’d swim up to Tower Road in Winnetka.”

Dr. Alice Mills loved to swim. / Family photo
Dr. Alice Mills loved to swim. / Family photo

After she retired in 1986, Dr. Mills and her husband enjoyed trips to exotic destinations including Istanbul, Russia and Turkey. In Kunming, China, she was delighted when they drew small crowds on daily visits to a local park.

“She and my dad went out there every evening, and people would start to show up who wanted to practice their English,” Dr. Mills said.

Alice Solar Mills was a founding member of the Institute for Learning in Retirement at Northwestern University.

Dr. Mills is also survived by another daughter, psychologist Pamela Forman, and five grandchildren. A service is being planned in the spring at one of her favorite places, the Chicago Botanic Garden, where, on nice days, she would walk for miles.