Francois Archibald Gilfillan enjoys a place in OSU history as one of the institution’s celebrated personalities. A unique individual, Gilfillan was a college dropout, a high school teacher, a member of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, and the recipient of a doctoral degree from Yale—all before his thirtieth birthday.
In 1927, after a brief stint at the Calco Chemical Company and the University of Florida, Gilfillan found himself teaching Pharmacy at Oregon Agricultural College, his undergraduate alma mater. It was at OAC (now Oregon State University) that he shook his small-town Texas roots and established himself as an urbane Renaissance man at the cultural center of a small Oregon farming community.
Today, “Doc” (as he was known to family and friends) is often remembered for his extracurricular activities. He collected rare books and fine British silver, was a devotee of traditional Japanese gardening, a mountaineer, an obsessive genealogist, a ranking Mason, and a polyglot. Gilfillan also cultivated relationships with other intellectuals including documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White and Russian author Antonina Riasanovsky. Naturally, his hobbies drew attention from his students and the greater community and resulted in a certain cult of personality that persists in OSU’s institutional memory nearly fifty years after his retirement.
Despite his compelling personal interests, it is Gilfillan’s efforts as a proponent of science education in Oregon that are his true legacy. In 1939, he was promoted to Dean of the School of Science and began a campaign to improve science education in Oregon’s high schools and universities. To this end, he became active in groups dedicated to furthering the cause of science education. He acted as Secretary for the Oregon Academy of Science where he worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science to oversee small grants to fund high school lab experiments; he became Vice President of Scientists of Tomorrow which encouraged science learning in the U.S.; and oversaw the Junior Engineers and Scientists Summer Institute (JESSI) at OSU. He also participated in a National Teacher Training program, served as the Commissioner on Higher Education for the Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools and acted as one of the five original incorporators of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).
Gilfillan’s legacy is a quiet one but has far-reaching consequences for Oregonians. Scientists of Tomorrow and National Teacher Training provided educational opportunities for thousands of Oregon students and teachers, descendants of the JESSI program still operate at OSU today, and OMSI has become one of the leading educational attractions in the state.
The F.A. Gilfillan Papers are a tremendous resource for scholars interested in the history of Oregon State University, science research and education in Oregon, and the role of land grant colleges in all levels of education.