#SheWhoShines 9. Lillian Moller Gilbreth - The Psychologist, Engineer, Mother of 12 and Genius in the Art of Modern Living

Most of us are probably unaware that Lillian Moller Gilbreth gave us many of the designs and inventions to make work and life easier. For example, two of her most well-known inventions were the electric mixer, shelves inside refrigerator doors, including the egg keeper and butter tray, and the foot-pedal trash can. We also owe to her the concept of workplace design and what is now known as ‘ergonomics’.

Born in Oakland, California to German parents, she was brought up in a well-to-do Victorian family. Lillian started college at the University of California, Berkeley and graduated in 1900. She later went on to obtain a Master's in literature, and a doctorate degree in psychology. Lillian has countless ‘firsts’, such as being the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. The other ‘firsts’ are listed below. When she died in 1972, aged 93, only a few years after retiring, she had 'proved that women can have both a fulfilling career and enriched family life'.

While her husband, Frank Gilbreth with his construction management background, was interested in technical aspects of workplace management, Lillian was fascinated by human behaviour and had a strong sense of empathy. They were genuine partners in life and work. When her husband died suddenly in 1924, aged 55, Lillian was left to raise 12 children under 19 years old on her own. One of their children, Mary, died of diphtheria in 1912.

Lillian went on to ensure that all their children should graduate from college. Both the parents and their children were prolific writers. One such book ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’, a biographical novel was written by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey in 1948, which was adapted to film in 1950.

She was a prolific writer and a traveller, lecturing worldwide and within the States. As a consultant to major corporations she helped solve problems by using psychology in areas such as office equipment, household appliances, hospitals, and sports. We owe her the study that went into improving kitchen design and the correct height stoves, sinks and other kitchen fixtures. Lillian was instrumental in the development of the modern kitchen, creating the "work triangle" and linear kitchen layouts that are often used today. 

Notably she served as an advisor to at least five U.S. presidents on civil defence and women's issues. She received more than 23 honorary degrees, several prestigious awards, and was also included in the books American Men of ScienceWho's Who of American Women, and Notable American Women: The Modern Period .

Lillian’s firsts include:

  • She was the first Professor in the engineering school at Purdue University
  • Until 2005, she was the only woman awarded the prestigious Hoover Award, jointly bestowed by five leading engineering organizations
  • Lillian was the first female psychologist to be commemorated on the 40c postage stamp
  • In 1950, she became an honorary member of the newly createdSociety of Women Engineers