Industrial Engineering

By The Editors / November / December 2000
October 24th, 2007

Lillian Moller Gilbreth ‘15 Ph.D.

Lillian Moller Gilbreth was a woman of firsts: first mother ever to receive a doctorate at Brown and the first female engineer to receive the Hoover Medal. At a time when women stayed at home to raise the kids, Gilbreth went out, worked, and still raised twelve children.

According to her biographer, Jane Lancaster ’98 Ph.D., Gilbreth was the model for the mother in the 1949 novel Cheaper By the Dozen, which was written by two of her children. From the beginning Gilbreth was an ambitious young woman, hungry for education. Despite her father’s disapproval, she enrolled at UC Berkeley and in 1900 became the first woman to address one of its commencements.

In 1903, after a year of graduate school at Columbia, she met Frank Gilbreth, a thirty-five-year-old builder who was interested in the newly developing field of scientific management. They soon married, planning to have twelve children, six boys and six girls—which is exactly what they did.

The Gilbreths arrived in Providence in 1912, where they quickly established themselves as “consulting engineers,” concentrating on the efficient rearrangement of work: rerouting routines on assembly lines, for example. Working on a Ph.D. in educational psychology at Brown, Gilbreth also applied scientific management principles to education; her dissertation was titled Some Aspects of Eliminating Waste in Teaching. After finishing her Ph.D., Gilbreth and her husband proceeded to use scientific management to make employment possible for the handicapped, in particular for injured soldiers back from World War I.

In 1924 Frank Gilbreth died, leaving Lillian alone to support their children, who were all under nineteen. She responded by doing what she did best: she worked, efficiently and hard, eventually seeing every one of her children through college. Specifically, she taught management at Purdue, and on the side she continued to apply her philosophy of efficiency. She designed the continuous-surface-model kitchen for General Electric, for example, adapting its use for handicapped homemakers. She also taught efficient work strategies to secretaries at the Katharine Gibbs School and reorganized the way hospitals set out their surgical instruments. She instructed nurses on how to make beds without straining their backs and became one of the best-known women in America, eventually heading President Hoover’s Organization on Unemployment Relief.

Gilbreth traveled the world as a scientific-management consultant during the 1950s, flying to Australia, Taiwan, and the Netherlands. She worked until 1968, when her doctor forced her to retire—at age ninety.

“She was extremely smart and accomplished,” Lancaster says. “And she was a really good person as well.”

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November / December 2000