Lillian Gilbreth – the Mother of Applied Psychiatry… and twelve children

By Jaime Seltzer

“…if the only way to enter a man’s field was through the kitchen door, that’s the way she’d enter.” – Lillian Gilbreth

Lillian Gilbreth led an unusual and fascinating life for a young woman born in the 1870s. She had eight siblings and a sickly mother, so she often ended up looking after a large brood. Despite her motherly nature, she was quiet around other children her age, and had difficulty making friends.

It’s important to remember that, in the 1890s, the vast majority of women did not seek out a professional life. In an age before dishwashers, refrigerators, washing machines, and modern cookware, the daily job of running a family was more than enough work for any one person – and that one person was presumed to be the lady of the house. Therefore, a woman who pursued a career on top of the responsibility of running a household either had an overwhelming passion for a particular field of study, a fiercely independent spirit, or was convinced she was too unattractive to ever get married. By the time she was a young teenager, Lillian was certain that she belonged in the last of these three categories, and convinced her parents to allow her to study at the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in English literature and intending to become a teacher when she graduated.

Her parents agreed, but only so long as Lillian managed their household as well as her studies, continuing to live at home and look after her younger siblings. Her folks had a pretty sweet deal in Lillian, who was under the impression that she fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down and seemed convinced she had no other options. Given Lillian’s situation, it seemed she would live the life of an indentured servant to her parents until the end of their – or her – days.

To Lillian and Frank, running a household meant delegating tasks, taking everyone’s happiness into account, and making changes to the rules as needed – in other words, being a good parent meant being a good manager.

Lillian flourished at college, graduating with honors in 1900; she went on to earn her graduate degree at Columbia University, wanting to study with literary critic Brander Matthews, but she soon learned he refused to admit women to his classes. That would prove a fateful twist for Lillian, who turned instead to the psychology classes of A.H. Thorndike. Unfortunately, Lillian became ill at Columbia and had to return home to finish her master’s at Berkeley in English with a minor in psychology, which she hoped would help her better understand her students.

Then, just for kicks, she kept going, enrolling at Berkeley for her doctorate in English and yet another minor in psychology. Perhaps she saw herself as headmistress of a girls’ school someday.

Lillian’s education was expanding her horizons, and she had decided to tour Europe over the summer with other educated young ladies. The group traveled from California to Boston first, and there Lillian met Frank Gilbreth, owner of a construction company and the cousin of her chaperone. Frank took the young ladies sightseeing around Boston, but it was clear that he and Lillian were head-over-heels from the get-go. When Lillian returned from Europe, Frank met her with flowers. He traveled to California to introduce himself to her family, proposed, and the pair were married in 1904.

If you are reading through these descriptions and paying attention, you may have noticed that there is not much time spent on the romantic partner or partners of the ladies in question. That is because the accomplishments of a scientist are her own. However, Frank and Lillian were a special case if ever there was one: true partners in every sense of the word. It is reasonable to say that neither of them would have accomplished apart what they managed to do, together.

To start with, Frank convinced Lillian that psychology was really more her bag than English: it played into her strong sense of empathy and her practical understanding of others. Besides, he reasoned, if Lillian knew more about psychology perhaps that would be helpful to his business endeavors. Lillian thought this sounded smashing and switched her doctorate to psychology. She wanted a big family like her parents, and so pretty much the entire time she was earning her doctorate she was pregnant or in labor, with an increasing brood of her own at home.

Meanwhile, Frank and Lillian’s work began to mesh together unpredictable ways. When Frank began to design structures that increased efficiency, Lillian concentrated on whether efficiency was what kept the employee focused and motivated at work. This became the subject of her doctoral thesis, which she later published as the groundbreaking book The Psychology of Management. However, she and Frank moved to Boston and that along with other complications meant that she actually wrote two doctoral theses. The second was called The Elimination of Waste and discussed making classroom teaching more efficient. In both cases she was called L.M. Gilbreth to avoid the pesky gender issue. She was awarded her Ph.D. in 1915 and had her seventh child three days later. That must’ve been some thesis defense!

Lilian Gilbreth

Lilian Gilbreth and her card in the Women in Science game.

If Lillian had changed her major in part to suit Frank, Frank had changed his business in part to suit Lillian. The pair went from construction to management consultation, where they were the first to come up with the now-common business ideas of suggestion boxes, breaks, progress charts, and rewards for employees who had done well.

Their home was no exception to the search for order, efficiency and happiness; on the contrary, it was where many of their theories were born. Lillian and Frank had twelve children all told, and so their home was run like a little corporation in and of itself. There were bids for chores (the lowest bidder got the job and the cash), and efficiency experts to make note if someone left a tap running or a lamp burning. Family counsels were held regularly, to take in the concerns of every child. To Lillian and Frank, running a household meant delegating tasks, taking everyone’s happiness into account, and making changes to the rules as needed – in other words, being a good parent meant being a good manager.

As you might imagine, a house of thirteen people made for an amusing clash of personalities and some wacky hijinks of the generally wholesome kind. Two of Lillian and Frank’s more literary-minded offspring wrote a few of these down, and this became the two popular books (and movies) Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes.

Frank and Lillian themselves wrote multiple works on management and efficiency together, though Lillian was never listed as a co-author in light of the publishers’ belief that no one would take a scholarly book co-authored by a woman seriously. Despite her lack of much in the way of publicized work, Lillian became the first female member of the Society for Industrial Engineers in 1921.

Lillian and Frank had started training others in efficiency and management at their home when he passed away suddenly of a heart attack, in 1924. Perhaps unaware of just how much of a role Lillian had played in the business, perhaps just giant jerks, companies cancelled their contract with the Gilbreths in response. It was only when Lillian was hired by Macy’s in New York City that other companies reconsidered, and her business was saved.

Lillian recognized that combining her engineering and psychology expertise in an arena specific to women would make her work marketable again. She designed a kitchen for efficiency and put on a public exhibition that displayed its awesomeness by baking – I do not kid – a strawberry shortcake in her kitchen versus the traditional kitchen. The number of steps a woman had to take in the Gilbreth kitchen was 45; the old-fashioned kitchen clocked in at 281 steps! Lillian was also the inventor of shelves inside refrigerator doors, foot-pedal trash cans, and kitchen islands: innovations that make storage handier and work simpler.

Lillian taught psychology and management courses at many colleges and universities including Purdue, Bryn Mawr, and Rutgers University. She was awarded twenty honorary degrees, and six presidents asked her to serve on various commissions over the course of her life including President Hoover during the Great Depression. She was an industrial engineer, a psychologist, an educator, a designer, an inventor, and a mother, and she made every occupation inform the others in a way that was so unique that the world has yet meet anyone with quite the same skill set as Lillian Gilbreth.

Koppes, L. L. (1999). Lilian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth. The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, 26(1). Retrieved from
Lange, A. (2012, October 25). The Woman Who Invented the Kitchen. Slate. Retrieved from
Lillian Moller Gilbreth. (2010). In Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved from

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