Lillie Lewin Bowman (1899-1966)

by Mindi Thompson-Ball, University of Akron**

Biography of Lillie Lewin Bowman

Born in Union, Oregon near the turn of the century to a Jewish family, Lillie Lewin Bowman was the youngest of four children, with three older brothers.  She lived in the same neighborhood as many of her relatives, to whom she credited much of her drive and motivation.  Indeed, she once described herself as "a product of centuries of economic strife, political oppression, religious persecution, and social exclusion" (Bowman, 1922, p. 2).  These close family relationships led her to internalize a sense of social and family responsibility, and a commitment to making the most of every opportunity.

In the fifth grade, Bowman was labeled a "misfit" by her teachers because she was deemed too academically advanced for the fifth grade, but too young for the sixth grade.  Throughout her grade school and high school careers, Bowman continued to face the challenges of being knowledgeable beyond her years, leading her to seek involvement in other activities such as church work and helping an uncle with his business.  Bowman had her first taste of teaching in her role as a Sunday school instructor at a nearby Methodist church she attended with a neighbor.  Bowman described this experience as the seed that initiated her lifelong passion to be educated and to educate others (Lewin, n.d.). 

Lillie Lewin Bowman was “instilled with the wandering spirit of [her] ancestors, the determination of [her] grandfather, [her] fathers desire for learning, and the 20th century woman’s independence” (Lewin, n.d.).  In 1916, at the age of 17, she left her home in Oregon in pursuit of opportunities at a teacher training institute, the Normal School at San Jose, California.  It was as a student there that Bowman was first exposed to Lewis Terman’s work on psychological testing.  Her score on one of Terman’s achievement tests placed her in the top 5% of her school, which in turn led to continued interactions and consultations with Terman throughout her career.  In addition, while attending the Normal School, Bowman discovered her ability and desire to integrate creative and progressive pedagogical strategies into her teaching. 

After studying at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York and the Training School in Vineland, New Jersey, Bowman earned her PhD in educational psychology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1937.  Here she developed a keen interest in statistics, psychological testing, and measurement, particularly as they would reveal individual differences that predicted childrens’ future academic success.  Her thesis and dissertation were entitled:  The Education of the Mentally Deficient in Public Schools and Prediction of Success in Certain Academic Subjects in High School, respectively (Bowman, 1963).  As a professional, she was dedicated to increasing awareness of progressive movements in education, and to understanding which environments provided the most stimulation for learning.  She intentionally designed lessons that encouraged her students to apply course material and consider the material critically, integratively, and holistically. 

Throughout her career, Bowman served as an instructor for a range of ages (grade school through college) and was the first woman, the first psychologist, and the first Ph.D. to be hired by the San Francisco Unified School District in 1946.  She became the first woman to hold the position of Director of the Bureau of Research for any major school district in the country (Frazer, 1959).  In addition to holding this position, Bowman and a colleague owned a consulting firm.  Throughout her work, Bowman was intensely involved in reconstructing curricula, developing new educational programs for children, and advocating for improvements in legislation for education. Indeed, even after her retirement, requests for copies of the programs that she had initiated came from around the world (Independent Journal, 1959). 

Lillie Lewin Bowman’s contributions to psychology and education were further complemented by her contributions to science.  In 1934, she was granted the patent for the pouring spout which earned her recognition in American Men of Science.  She was thus invited to become a member of the Chartered Institute of American Inventors and was asked to patent the pouring spout in Canada.

Over the course of her life, Bowman accumulated a plethora of professional credentials.  Prior to her retirement, she served on the editorial staffs of numerous journals, on the advisory board of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission, and as chairperson for the Committee on the Education of Gifted children.  She was a member of a number of professional organizations and was recognized in Who’s Who in Education, Who’s Who of American Women, and Leaders in Education (Bowman, 1963).

Despite her many achievements, Bowman retained the reputation of an “unpedantic” and “natural” person who was dedicated to ensuring that every child received the best education possible.  She maintained an underlying philosophy that enriching the lives of children would empower them to enrich the lives of others in the future.  (KCBS Radio Script, 1954)  She was described as cooperative, optimistic, energetic, and was once depicted as the “last of the red-hot feminists” (Frazer, 1959, p. 6).  Indeed, during a speech she gave at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Bowman responded to a question about the future careers of the gifted boys about whom she was speaking by saying “Gentlemen, I have news for you.  Fifty percent of these gifted BOYS you think I’ve been talking about will grow up to be WOMEN” (Frazer, 1959, p. 6).

Although her contributions to psychology and to science have often been overlooked, Lillie Lewin Bowman was a true entrepreneur who not only excelled in academic and professional realms, but also challenged the societal norms of her times. 


Bowman, L. L. (1922).  How I happen to be in California:  The story of my Immigrant Ancestors.  Assignment from Economics 186.  Bowman Papers, M92.1. 

Bowman, L. L. (no date).  Biographical Sketch. Bowman Papers.

Bowman, L. L. (1963).  Lillie Lewin Bowman – Personal and Professional Record.  Bowman Papers, M92.1. 

Frazer, M. (1959).  ‘I have news for you’ Last of the feminists ends school career.  San Francisco News, p. 6.  Bowman Papers.

Independent Journal (1959).  Leaving unique post:  Noted education aide to end long career, p. 16. Bowman Papers.

KCBS Radio Script. (1954).  This Is San Francisco Public Schools Week.  Bowman Papers.


*From the Lillie L. Bowman Papers, Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Akron, OH.

**Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 31, Number 3, Summer, 2004. Appearing with permission of the author.