Lillian Moller Gilbreth
Pioneering Industrial Engineer Was More Than a Mother
By Dee Anne Finken
Most people don’t know Lillian Moller Gilbreth by name, but mention Cheaper by the Dozen, the 1950 memoir and film based on her life and that of her family of 12 children, and sparks of recognition usually ignite. In particular, those of us who grew up during the ’50s and ’60s and even into the ’70s recall with a smile reading about or watching the antics of the family of early-day industrial engineer and efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth.
There was plenty to laugh about as Gilbreth drafted his offspring into action in his tireless search for the “One Best Way,” that is, the most efficient and exacting manner of performing any task. This ranged from the right way to take a bath, to the family-size tonsillectomy designed to save time for the surgeon, to household council meetings, where young Gilbreths learned the ins and outs of negotiating payment for their household chores.
But one portrayal in both the memoir and film is not quite true to life. Despite what we saw and read, Lillian Gilbreth actually was not a long-suffering, second-fiddle-playing wife and mother. Much more than the Leave-it-to-Beaver-style June Cleaver character suggested in the book and film, she was, in fact, the “best woman engineer in the world,” according to five engineering societies that bestowed the title on her in 1955. Now, thanks to Brown University historian and biographer Jane Lancaster, we have access to the real story of the Gilbreths and, in particular, Lillian Gilbreth. Don’t worry. No Jekyll-and-Hyde character transformation pops out of Lancaster’s thoroughly researched Making Time Lillian Moller Gilbreth A Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen,” published by Northeastern University Press in 2004.
Rather, as Lancaster so aptly describes, Gilbreth was actually a marvel of a woman and a major influence on engineering whose mark on the profession still remains evident today. Yes, Gilbreth was almost always upbeat, eager, encouraging, and supportive, as the book and film portrayed her. But she was also an individual in her own right and an accomplished professional. From being the first woman appointed to the National Academy of Engineering, to her service as an adviser to five U.S. presidents, to her standing as a world-recognized efficiency expert, to her tenure as the first female professor at Purdue University’s School of Engineering, Gilbreth’s achievements were lengthy and inspiring.
In fact, she was so inspiring that Lancaster herself says her discovery of the true Dr. Gilbreth prompted her to alter her life’s direction. A former teacher at a private girls school in Rhode Island, Lancaster was reintroduced to the Gilbreth story when she researched a lesson on famous women scientists and engineers. Rifling through texts in the Brown University library, “I came across Lillian in my research one hot afternoon, and I was a bit intrigued. All I knew about her at this point was ‘Cheaper by the Dozen,'” Lancaster recalls. One thing led to another, and Lancaster says she decided she should return to school, where she proceeded to research Gilbreth’s story more fully for a Ph.D. dissertation and the subsequent book.
Many aspects of Gilbreth’s life impressed Lancaster, but foremost was the personal touch she brought to the early science of industrial engineering. Working hand-in-hand, the Gilbreths helped to humanize the early 20th century workplace. Onetime colleague Frederick Winslow Taylor set the standards and principles behind the practice of scientific management, but Frank and Lillian Gilbreth noted workers were first and foremost human beings, and both sought to insure they were treated as such, says Lancaster. “Taylor was really all about economic incentives,” says the biographer.
While Taylor measured split seconds and the ultimate in efficiency, the Gilbreths set out to organize the workplace to make it more suitable for workers and consequently more efficient. “The Gilbreths,” Lancaster explains, “said, ‘let’s organize work so it’s easier for people to work. Let’s put things in reach for workers; let’s ask them for their opinion as to the best way to do things so they buy into the process. And let’s adapt teaching techniques so they learn better, too.'”
To be fair, industrial engineering has long recognized the numerous contributions of Lillian and Frank Gilbreth. The Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Industrial Engineering Award ranks as the highest honor given by the Institute of Industrial Engineering, and the Gilbreths’ portraits hang on the walls at the institute’s headquarters. But as Lancaster’s doctoral dissertation, “Wasn’t She the Mother in ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’?,” so aptly points out, not everyone has always known Lillian Gilbreth for the accomplished engineer she was.
Perhaps that was largely because of the times. Today, women and minorities are woefully underrepresented in engineering practice and study, but during the Gilbreths’ days, that situation was even more dire. According to the 1938 edition of American Men of Science, which listed 1,821 women, only five were in engineering.
A graduate of the University of California, Gilbreth was, in 1900, the first female to speak at a graduation ceremony at the prestigious institution. In 1926, she became only the second woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. And she became Purdue’s first female professor in its engineering school in 1935.
Interestingly, Lillian Gilbreth was the more educated of the husband-and-wife team. Frank Gilbreth never attended college, though he had been admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because there was no formal curriculum in industrial engineering at the time she took her training (the Institute of Industrial Engineering wasn’t even established until after World War II), Dr. Gilbreth’s degree from Brown University came in educational psychology.
Nevertheless, the Gilbreths practiced the earliest form of the discipline, emphasizing the design and improvement of systems related to people, equipment, energy, and other factors. When husband Frank died at the relatively young age of 55, Lillian took up the reins alone and continued the work they as a couple had pursued. In the process, she became much more than the mother of 12 children and costar of a film.
For more information on the book Making Time, Lillian Moller Gilbreth — A Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen” written by Jane lancaster and published by Northeastern University Press, visit www.nupress.neu.edu