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Lillian Moller Gilbreth: The Mother of Modern Management

By Jeanne Robinson

Did you see the movie, “Cheaper by the Dozen”? Would it surprise you to learn it was based on real life? Two of Lillian Moller Gilbreth’s 12 children wrote the book, and a sequel, too, about growing up in her household. Lillian and Frank Gilbreth were internationally famous efficiency-management experts. Lillian is called the “Mother of Modern Management.” Among her time-saving inventions are the foot-pedal trash can, refrigerator shelves, and an electric food mixer.

Lillian Moller was born on May 24, 1878 in Oakland, California. She earned a B.A. in literature at the University of California at Berkeley in 1900 and in 1902 she obtained a master’s in literature there. She met her husband, Frank Gilbreth shortly after that and they were married in 1904. Lillian helped Frank in his construction consulting business and soon became his partner. They moved to Rhode Island and Lillian earned a doctorate in psychology from Brown University in 1915 – while having four children.  She eventually had six sons and six daughters.

The Gilbreths concentrated their business on efficient time management. Frank studied the technical properties of managing workers while Lillian focused on the human element. Their famous Motion Studies tracked the movements workers did to complete tasks. Their work in office furniture design helped pioneer the field of ergonomics. Lillian pioneered the psychology of work - workers’ mental and physical health, the effect of stress and fatigue, and worker incentives.

Lillian continued working in efficiency-management after Frank’s death in 1924. She became a professor of management at Purdue University in 1935, the first woman in the engineering department. She consulted with businesses such as General Electric to improve the design of kitchens. Lillian focused on physically disabled people and created innovations to help them do household tasks. She served on Presidential committees and wrote books. She toured the world speaking at conferences and lecturing on management efficiency.

Lillian received numerous awards throughout her life, including the prestigious Hoover Medal in 1966. The citation reads:

Renowned engineer, internationally respected for contributions to motion study and to the recognition of the principle that management engineering and human relations are intertwined; courageous wife and mother; outstanding teacher, author, lecturer and member of professional committees under Herbert Hoover and four successors. Additionally, her unselfish application of energy and creative efforts in modifying industrial and home environments for the handicapped has resulted in full employment of the capabilities and elevation of their self-esteem. 

(From “Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 1 (1979) by the National Academy of Engineering, p. 89 to 94, by James N. Landis (accessed from the NAE website, www.nae.edu ))

 

Lillian earned several “Firsts:”

  • First female commencement speaker at University of California at Berkeley, 1900

  • First woman admitted to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1926 (cited as 1921 and as second woman in some sources)

  • Recipient of the first award of the Gilbreth Medal created by the Society of Industrial Engineers, 1931

  • First honorary member of the Society of Women Engineers, 1950

  • First woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, 1965

Lillian Moller Gilbreth died on January 2, 1972 at the age of 92. There is a moving tribute to her in the National Academy of Engineering, Memorial Tributes, Volume 1 (1979) by James N. Landis, p 89 to 94, accessible from the NAE website, www.nae.edu.  Her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and a U.S postage stamp was issued in her honor in 1984.

Resources and Further Reading:
Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Library in the Archives and Special Collections of Purdue University:

Lillian Moller Gilbreth page at the San Diego Supercomputer Center website:

The Gilbreth Network

1955 Interview with Lillian Gilbreth

Paper Presented by Lillian Gilbreth