Lillian Gilbreth

Lillian Gilbreth: A master of human behavior and engineering

By today’s standards, Lillian Gilbreth 1900, M.A. 1902 was a superwoman. She studied literature at Berkeley in anticipation of becoming a teacher — and was the first woman to speak at a commencement ceremony — but her path took a dramatic turn. In 1915, she earned a Ph.D. in applied psychology from Brown University and went on to pioneer the field of industrial and organizational psychology. She and her husband, Frank, had 12 children — inspiring the 1948 best-seller Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of their children, and the popular 1950 film (and 2003 remake) of the same name.

Partners in work as well, Lillian and Frank combined her insight into human behavior with his interest in efficiency. Leaders in studying time, motion, and fatigue, they created innovations in everything from redesigned machinery to better suit the way people move to regular breaks and suggestion boxes. 

After Frank’s death in 1924 — and because of discrimination she faced in the field — Lillian turned to developing simpler ways for women to perform housework. Linear layouts, foot-pedal trash cans, and refrigerator shelves are among many of her ubiquitous inventions in kitchen design and fixtures. She also maintained a decades-long career as a consultant, including advising the government on employment and education issues during the Great Depression, World War II, and other critical times in American history. Finally, she taught at several colleges and universities and was the first female professor in engineering at Purdue University.

While the extent of her contributions has only recently been recognized, Lillian accumulated a mile-long list of accomplishments and honors, most notably being the first woman ever admitted into the National Academy of Engineering. 



Read more about the ingenuity and courage of Lillian Gilbreth.

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