Lillian Gilbreth: A genius in the art of living

Lillian GilbrethLillian Gilbreth might be called Berkeley’s first industrial engineer and is considered the founder of the field of ergonomics. Her work was closely aligned with the field of industrial engineering, even though she attended Cal nearly 60 years before the Department of Industrial Engineering & Operations Research (IEOR) was created. She grew up in Oakland where she attended high school with Jack London and Gertrude Stein. At her Cal graduation in 1900, she was the first female ever to speak at commencement, then went on to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Brown University and focus the rest of her career in industrial and organizational psychology. She studied time, motion and fatigue to create ergonomic machinery for use in the household, in retail spaces, and by factory workers. She learned engineering by ghost-writing many books and articles on construction, factory and office work, and studies of surgery and dentistry, aging, disabilities and more. But she received credit as an author only if she used her initials to hide her gender.

In 1935 Gilbreth became a professor of management at Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering. She assisted the federal government on educational and employment strategies and during WWII, and her advocacy enabled the integration of women into war work. In the 1940s she was described as “a genius in the art of living” and was the first woman inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.

Despite her many achievements in the field of engineering, Gilbreth became best known as the inspiration for the mother’s character in Cheaper by the Dozen, a book written by two of her children, Frank and Ernestine. She was a woman well ahead of her time and not only laid the foundation for successful women industrial engineers, but set the tone for Berkeley IEOR to shape engineers working to make our world a better place.

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