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Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972)

by Laura L. Koppes, Tri-State University*

Biography of Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth

Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972) spent her life advocating the application of psychology, and helped shape the development of applied psychology in the early 20th century.  Only recently, scholars have begun to understand and recognize Gilbreth’s contributions (see Kelly & Kelly, 1990; Koppes, 1997; Perloff & Naman 1996).

Gilbreth took her first psychology course with the young psychologist, George Stratton, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in English.

In 1902, she completed a Master’s degree in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley and she then enrolled in psychology.  Shortly thereafter, Gilbreth changed her major to psychology at the suggestion of her fiancé, Frank Gilbreth, a contracting engineer.  Frank Gilbreth recognized her keen insight of human behavior, her strong empathy and sympathy for individuals, and her genuine interest in psychology.

After marrying in 1904, Gilbreth immediately became her husband’s engineering apprentice and construction business partner.  While constructing buildings, Gilbreth noted that engineers were addressing their technical problems scientifically but they appeared to be unaware that psychology had much to offer as a science.  She believed that Taylor’s scientific management system neglected individual needs in the work setting.  Gilbreth understood the importance of identifying the best motions to improve efficiency but she also wanted to know if those best motions provided the happiest result to those who used them.  While Frank Gilbreth was studying the employee’s motions, Lillian was observing and analyzing the employee’s dedication to his/her job.

In Gilbreth’s doctoral dissertation, she asserted that scientific management proponents should consider the perspectives and happiness of workers.  Although the dissertation was viewed positively by the faculty, the PhD was not conferred at  the last minute by the Academic Senate because she failed to meet the requirement of a final year in residence (she did not want to leave her family).  Gilbreth tried to publish the dissertation but publishers initially would not print it because it was perceived as ahead of its time and likely to interest only a few readers.  After publishing installments in an engineering periodical, she eventually published the dissertation as a book, The Psychology of Management (1914), which became one of the most influential textbooks on industrial relations.

When the family moved to the east coast, Gilbreth enrolled in a doctoral  program at Brown University because it was nearby and it was one of the first universities to acknowledge scientific management as a legitimate profession.  Her second dissertation, The Elimination of Waste, was the application of psychology and scientific management to the work of classroom teachers.  She was awarded a PhD in psychology 1915.  Three days later, she gave birth to her 7th child.

In 1912, the Gilbreths gave up the construction business to become management consultants.  Their consulting included implementing novel ideas for the time such as an employee suggestion box, rest periods, process charts, and alternative work.  They redesigned jobs based on employee’s perspectives, a new approach for the emerging discipline of industrial psychology. They developed ways to employ physically handicapped workers so they could become productive community members.  After Frank died in 1924, Lillian continued to consult and research applications of psychology for the next 45 years. 

Her work was responsive to many issues, and was characterized by an underlying theme: Whenever possible, a human component must be included.  Gilbreth’s writing on topics such as leadership, motivation, selection, job analysis, quality, promotions, group cooperation, training and nonfinancial incentives was at the forefront of many modern ideas of industrial and organizational psychology.  She was pivotal in getting management to address personnel issues, and in doing so, attained recognition for psychology in the workplace. According to her biographer, Edna Yost,

Gilbreth would not want anyone to claim for her too great a part in the changes that have come in industry through the science of psychology.  But even she could not name a single person who has had a greater influence in this field than she had.  Personnel work today — a recognized department in all big industries and many small ones — is, at its best, the intelligent application of psychology in industry, which she first urged. (1943, p.117)

Gilbreth expanded the application of psychology to solve problems in areas such as office machine companies, hospitals, and sports.  For example, she worked for General Electric and other appliance manufacturing companies to assist in redesigning kitchen and household appliances.  Two of her most notable inventions were the shelves inside refrigerator doors and the foot-pedal trash can.  She wrote two books (1927, 1928) that reflected her personal concerns about challenges faced by women in managing homes, raising families, and working in jobs outside the home.

In addition to consulting and researching, Gilbreth taught college and university courses at Bryn Mawr, Newark College of Engineering, and Rutgers University.  In 1935, she was appointed professor of management at Purdue University, the first woman to receive such an appointment.  She was designated as a resident lecturer for MIT in 1964 at age 86.  She also served on committees appointed by six U.S. presidents.

Gilbreth’s accomplishments brought her many honors.  She was included in American Men of Science, Who’s Who of American Women, and Notable American Women: The Modern Period.  She received more than 20 honorary degrees and several prestigious awards.  In 1984, a commemorative postage stamp was issued in her honor, making her the only psychologist to receive this accolade.  She also achieved notoriety  from two popular books, Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes, which were written by two of her children and made into successful movies.

A pioneer in many respects, Gilbreth advocated compensating for the omission of human aspects in scientific management.  She generated innovative applications of psychology to work and generalized her ideas and methods to societal problems. She managed a consulting business from her home, an atypical work style for women, and in later years attributed her achievement to having supportive spouse and family (of 12 children).

During a commencement speech in 1990 (the first female speaker at Berkeley), Gilbreth articulated her early philosophy of life, which served as a foundation for her work throughout her entire career.  She believed that all individuals have the right to happiness, and the goal of human life is the fulfillment and happiness of the person.  While professing that individuals can and should develop their fullest potentials, Gilbreth did just that.


*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 26, Number 1, Winter, 1999.  Appearing with permission of the author.

Date created: 2010