Civil engineer Seabury Colum Gilfillan (1889-1987), was one of the original five curators hired by Rosenwald Industrial Museum Executive Director Waldemar Kaempffert (1877-1956) in 1928, three years before it opened, and the year before it changed its name to the Museum of Science and Industry. S.C. Gilfillan was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on Sunday, April 14, 1889 to the Reverend Joseph A. Gilfillan and Harriet Woodbridge Cook Gilfillan. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1910 and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1920 and 1935, respectively. Between 1922 and 1925, he was acting assistant professor at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee and between 1925 and 1927 he was an instructor in sociology and economics at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.
His titles at the Museum of Science and Industry were Curator of Transportation & Communication (1928), Curator of Social Sciences and Water Transport (1929), and Curator of Ships (1929). For part of 1929, Gilfillan shared responsibility for Water Transportation Section with a fellow civil engineer, Fred A. Lippold. A German naval architect, Lippold had worked at the Deutsches Museum as a model-maker before he came to M.S.I. as Curator of Civil Engineering & Public Works. At some point in ‘29, Lippold succeeded Gilfillan as Curator of Shipbuilding & Navigation.
Between 1930 and 1932, Gilfillan was an investigator for the President’s Research Committee on Social Trends and in 1936 he was a researcher for the Natural Resource Committee. Under the advice of his advisor, Alvan Alonzo Tenney, Gilfillan divided his doctoral dissertation in two for publication. In 1935, Follett Publishing Company of Chicago published both The Sociology of Invention and Inventing the Ship: A Study of Inventions Made in the Past Between the Floating Log and the Rotorship. Subsequently, he taught sociology at Perdue University in 1937-38. In 1940, he was a lecturer at Northwestern University. Between 1941 and 1950, he was a research associate in sociology at The University of Chicago. In 1948, he was a lecturer at Roosevelt University.
Gilfillan was a charter member of the Society for the History of Technology in 1958. He was also a member of the Sociology Association and the American Eugenics Society. In 1971, San Francisco Press published Supplement to The Sociology of Invention. His last book, Rome’s Ruin by Lead Poison, was published posthumously by Wenzel Press in Long Beach, California in 1990.
He wed social worker Louise Wenzel. They had two daughters: Barbara Wenzel Gilfillan Crowley (1924-2012) and Marjorie Wenzel Gilfillan. Barbara graduated from The University of Chicago with a B.A. in psychology in 1944. She met John Crowley her first day on the job and they wed six months later. They moved to California, where they raised six children. John Crowley served as mayor of Pasadena for two years from 1986 to 1987. Barbara Wenzel Gilfillan Crowley earned a J.D. at Loyola Marymount University’s Loyola Law School, and she practiced law for twenty-five years. John died in 2007. When she died in 2012, Barbara was survived by five of their children, eleven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Gilfillan died at Pasadena, California, on Saturday, February 14, 1987, on Saint Valentine’s Day and two months short of his ninety-eighth birthday. His papers are at the Kelvin Smith Library of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He entrusted his papers to William C. Williams, Curator of the History of Science and Technology Collection at Case Western Reserve University in November of 1971. Melvin Kranzberg transferred some of the documents to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History on Wednesday, May 20, 1992. There is yet a third set of S. Colum Gilfillan Papers in the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.