Francois Archibald Gilfillan was born in Ninnekah, a small town in central Oklahoma, in 1893. As a child, he and his family moved from Oklahoma to Bowie, Texas. In 1910, Gilfillan enrolled in the Polytechnic College of Texas (now Southern Methodist University). The following year, he visited an uncle in Washington and took a job teaching at a public high school. He later transferred to Coos River High School in Oregon. In 1915, Gilfillan left Coos Bay and enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College where he became Associate Editor of the OAC Barometer, President of the Pharmaceutical Association and a ROTC cadet captain. In 1918 he earned his bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy with first honors. After graduation he joined the U.S. Army and served briefly in the Chemical Warfare Service.
After the end of World War I, Gilfillan enrolled at Yale University and taught at the Milford Tutoring School. In 1920, he was awarded the Calco Chemical Company fellowship at Yale. The following year, he graduated with his doctorate in chemistry and worked briefly as a research chemist at Calco. In 1922 he accepted an assistant professorship in Pharmacy at Oregon Agricultural College, a position he left three years later in favor of work at the University of Florida. In 1927, Gilfillan returned to his alma mater at the behest of President William Jasper Kerr and was appointed Professor of Chemistry. The following year he married Violette Odekirk, a Portland native, with whom he would have four children: Mary Louise, Elizabeth Ellen, Nansie Jean, and Margaret Alice. In 1939 Gilfillan was promoted to Dean of Science. The following year, when President Frank L. Ballard fell ill, Gilfillan took on some of the duties of University President. In 1941 he was officially appointed Acting President of Oregon State College following the resignation of Ballard. He served in this position until October 1942 when A. L. Strand assumed the presidency. Gilfillan returned to his position as Dean of Science where he remained until his retirement in 1962.
Gilfillan did a great deal to further science education on both the local and national scale. He was instrumental in the formation and administration of the Junior Engineers’ and Scientists’ Summer Institute (JESSI), a founder of the OSU chapter of the Blue Key Honors Society, one of the five original incorporators of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), the Commissioner on Higher Education of the Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools from 1947 to 1957, Secretary of the Oregon Academy of Science, and Vice President for Scientists of Tomorrow, Inc. for the latter half of the 1950s.
In addition to his professional duties, Gilfillan also maintained an active extracurricular life. He was a Rotarian, a Master Mason, and active member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. He spoke German, Russian, French, Italian and Chinook and could read Latin, Greek, Chinese, and Spanish. He also collected antique British silver, cultivated an authentic Japanese garden and amassed an impressive collection of rare books—many of which were donated to the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.
“Doc” Gilfillan passed away in 1983. In tribute to his service to the OSU community, the F.A. Gilfillan Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Science has been awarded annually since 1984.
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