The butter tray and egg dish in your refrigerator. The return water hose on your washing machine. The footpedal on a trash can to open the lid. Career interest tests. The kitchen triangle (the distance between your sink, refrigerator and stove). What do all of these have in common? They are all the legacy of Dr. Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the “First Lady of Engineering.”
Dr. Gilbreth, the first honorary member of SWE and a huge supporter of SWE in the early years, is one of the founders of the field of industrial engineering. The first scholarship established by the Society is named for her. Unfortunately, she is often only remembered today as the mother of twelve children from the books and movies Cheaper by the Dozenand Belles on Their Toes. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth decided to have twelve children during their engagement (1903-1904) and tested their early industrial engineering theories on the brood!
Frank and Lillian’s partnership paved the way for the field of industrial engineering by working in the area of time and motion studies and searching for the best way to do tasks and processes. Lillian was particularly concerned about the worker and what today we call ergonomics. After Frank’s untimely death in 1924, Lillian had to reconfigure the company’s services as no one would hire her to come into factories to do the needed studies due to her gender. She remade herself into a kitchen and home expert in spite of the fact that she did not cook or concern herself with running the household.
Dr. Gilbreth was the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering – that occurred in 1965, only one year after the founding of the NAE. Her many other honors include being featured on a U.S. postage stamp and being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
More information on Dr. Gilbreth will be published in the next year in a book in the Springer Women in Engineering and Science series. SWE member and Auburn University Distinguished Professor Alice Smith is the volume editor for this volume titled Women in Industrial and Systems Engineering: Key Advances and Perspectives on Emerging Topics and I am the series editor.
About Jill S. Tietjen
Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., President and CEO of Technically Speaking, Inc., is a Fellow, Life Member of SWE. She served as the 1991-1992 National President. A member of the Boards of Directors of Georgia Transmission Corporation and Merrick & Company, she has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.