Women in STEM: Lillian Moller Gilbreth
Lillian Gilbreth (née Moller) was born in Oakland, California on May 24, 1878. As the second oldest of eleven, a lot of responsibility was thrust upon her at a young age. Because of her shy nature, she was homeschooled until the age of nine, when she entered the first grade at a public elementary school. She continued with her public schooling and graduated from Oakland High School in 1896. Gilbreth received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of California, Berkeley in 1900 and 1902, respectively. She was the first woman to speak at speak at commencement at that institution. Two years later, she married Frank Bunker Gilbreth of Maine.
Gilbreth relocated to New England with her husband and at his advice, studied at Brown University to receive her doctorate degree in psychology. The couple shared the goal of applying what their knowledge of scientific management to many areas outside of industry. For example, the two employed their knowledge to aid in developing more efficient surgical techniques and methods of rehabilitation people with physical disabilities. The two worked together for twenty years and bore twelve children until Frank Gilbreth’s sudden death in 1924. Gilbreth was left to raise all their offspring under the age of nineteen as a single mother and took up a teaching job to support her family. She became the first female professor in the engineering school at Purdue University, the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the second woman to join the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and much more. Until 2005, she was the only woman awarded the prestigious Hoover Award, jointly bestowed by five leading engineering organizations recognizing "great, unselfish, non-technical services by engineers to humanity."
Her work as an industrial/organizational psychologist to companies applying her knowledge to solve issues in areas such as office equipment, household appliances, hospitals, and sports led to her coming up with new designs and inventions to make work and life easier. For example, two of her most well-known inventions were the shelves inside refrigerator doors, including the egg keeper and butter tray, and the foot-pedal trash can. She filed patents on an improved electric can opener and the input/out water hose for washing machines. As an industrial engineer working at General Electric, she interviewed over 4,000 women to design the proper height for stovetops, sinks, counters and other kitchen appliances as she worked on improving the designs for these items, bringing more female representation to her field.
Gilbreth continued her profession as a teacher at several universities around the Northeast. She retired from being a professor and industrial/organizational psychologist at the age of 90. She passed away from natural cause at the age of 93 and followed her husband by being cremated and having her ashes spread off the coast of Nantucket.
“The things which concerned him more than anything else were the what and the why--the what because he felt it was necessary to know absolutely what you were questioning and what you were doing or what concerned you, and then the why, the depth type of thinking which showed you the reason for doing the thing and would perhaps indicate clearly whether you should maintain what was being done or should change what was being done.” - Lillian Moller Gilbreth