Skip Navigation
John Morris Gillette

John Morris Gillette

August 6, 1866 - September 24, 1949

John M. Gillette served as President of the American Sociological Society in 1928. His Presidential Address, "Urban Influence and Selection," was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in Chicago in December, 1928.

The following biographical sketch was prepared by the University of North Dakota.

John Morris Gillette was born on August 9, 1866, near Maryville, Missouri. He was the son of William and Jane (Radford) Gillette. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Park College in Parkville, Missouri, in 1892. In 1895, he graduated from the Princeton Theological Seminary, in addition to receiving a Master of Arts degree from Princeton University. Gillette continued his education with a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1898. He earned a second doctorate, this one in sociology, from the University of Chicago in 1901.

Gillette became an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1895, and served in Dodge City, Kansas, until 1896. From 1898-1901, he acted as President of Chadron (Nebraska) State Normal School. On September 4, 1901, he married Margaret Carolyn Morgan in Chadron. He served as Principal of the Academy for Young Women in Jacksonville, Illinois, from 1901-1903, before moving to Valley City, North Dakota, to accept a position at Valley City Normal School. He was a Professor in history and sociology at Valley City from 1903-1907.

Gillette became an Assistant Professor in sociology and an Instructor in history at the University of North Dakota in 1907. The following year, he founded and was named chair of the Department of Sociology. He was also promoted to Professor. By 1911, the department had grown to such a point that seventeen courses were part of the curriculum. The department was among the first on campus to offer graduate degrees; the University’s first Ph.D. was granted to George R. Davies in 1914 with a degree in history and sociology. Davies went on to teach in the Department of Sociology until 1928, when he resigned to accept a position at the University of Iowa.

A major milestone in Gillette’s career was the publication of Rural Sociology in 1913. This book was the first formal textbook in the field, won Gillette nation wide acclaim as the founder of this branch of sociology. In 1914, Gillette and the Sociology Club established the University Settlement House. Sponsored jointly by Gillette and UND President Frank McVey, the house cared for over eighty needy families. In later years, Gillette led the Department of Sociology towards a great emphasis on statistics, while also reintroducing the study of anthropology, which had not been part of the curriculum since 1907. Gillette was also involved with an increased emphasis on the study of social work.

Following the retirement of UND President Thomas Kane in 1933, Gillette was offered the presidency by North Dakota Governor William Langer. After thinking it over for a while, Gillette turned the offer down, but was successful in persuading Langer and the Board of Administration to hire John C. West, former superintendent of Grand Forks public schools.

Gillette was active in a number of academic groups and organizations, including Phi Beta Kappa, the International Sociological Society, and the Czechoslovakian National Academy of Agriculture. He was involved with the American Sociological Society, and served as President of the organization in 1928. He served North Dakota through activity with the North Dakota State Historical Society, the North Dakota Workmen’s Compensation and Unemployment Insurance Division, and the North Dakota State Child Labor Commission. During the Great Depression, Gillette was the State Supervisor of Rural Research for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

Gillette was also a social reformer who was a member of the American Association for Labor Legislation, the National Child Labor Committee, and the North Dakota Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. Gillette was especially interested in issues surrounding jails and poor farms. His research was published in a 1913 edition of the Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota. Gillette recommended that poor farms be eliminated, while also calling for more inspections of jails, and a greater supervision of local and state charities.

Gillette retired from UND in 1948, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in 1949. He died in Grand Forks on September 24, 1949. The former Chemistry Building was re-dedicated in his honor on October 7, 1983.

The J. M. Gillette Papers are housed in the Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection, ELWYN B. ROBINSON DEPARTMENT OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CHESTER FRITZ LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH DAKOTA, GRAND FORKS, NORTH DAKOTA 58202. COLLECTION OGL #48 covers 1880-1949 and totals 19.5 linear feet].

**********

In his 1951 book, American Sociology: The Story of Sociology in the United States through 1950, Howard W. Odum provided the following biographical sketch of John M. Gillette (pages 144-147):

Still another of the presidents of the American Sociological Society who lived and worked beyond the eighty-year mark was John M. Gillette, the eighteenth president in 1928. Like Sumner, Small, Hayes, Weatherly, Gillin, Lichtenberger, he came into the field of sociology from the ministry, and like many of the others the span of his life coincided with the rise and development of sociology following the Civil War and moving on up to the mid-point of the twentieth century. Born in Missouri in 1866, he received an M.A. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1895 and a Ph.D. at Chicago Theological Seminary in 1899. He had been ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1895 and had preached in rural churches in Kansas and later in the frontier town of Dodge City. After receiving his degree at the Chicago Theological Seminary he transferred to sociology at the university where he received his Ph.D. two years later. For six years after that, he was president of the Academy for Young Women in Illinois and professor of psychology and the social sciences at the Valley State Teachers College in North Dakota. Then in 1907 he went to the University of North Dakota and the following year established the new Department of Sociology which he headed for forty years.

And like most of his contemporaries his life reflected a wide and varied experience. Besides being vice-president and president of the American Sociological Society, he was an associate member of the Internationale Institute of Sociology and an advisory member of the Academy of Agriculture of Czechoslovakia. He was, at home, a member of the North: Dakota State Welfare Commission, and of the advisory committee of the National Child Labor Committee and of the National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor, as well as of the advisory committee of the State Workmen's Compensation and Unemployment Insurance Division. Still nearer home, at Grand Forks, he was vice-president and president of the Charity Organization Society and the City Council. As indicating public recognition he received two honorary degrees, the Doctor of Laws from Park College and the Doctor of Humanities from the University of North Dakota. Gillette blazed new trails not only in a frontier American society itself but in rural sociology. James M. Reinhardt points out in tributes in the American Sociological 'Review and Social Forces, Fall, 1949, that he "was often referred to as the dean of rural sociology because of the formative influence that his pioneer works in the field had in this and other countries. A review of college catalogue offerings in sociology for a considerable period following the appearance of his Constructive Rural Sociology in 1913, and the first edition of his Rural Sociology in 1922, reveals the pre-eminence of his position in this expanding field, over many years. His early works in rural sociology attracted wide attention throughout the world, and translations of his books were used in various European universities and in the Imperial University of Japan."

Reinhardt continues, "Dr. Gillette's intellectual interests ranged far and wide. In addition to his work in rural sociology, he wrote books in such related areas as general sociology, education, the family, and social problems. He also published numerous articles and pamphlets on a variety of subjects, including anthropology, regionalism, and weather. His intellectual activity and mental acuity showed no signs of impairment right up to the time of his death. His outstanding investigations showing a definite scientific relation between variable weather conditions and the economic status of a people, as well as a number of other researches, were done after his 80th year." In fact, "He was actively engaged during the last year of his life on several projects including a sociological interpretation of the life and times of the Great Plains during his 83 years."

His main books include Vocational Education, in 1910; Constructive Rural Sociology, in 1913 and revised in 1916; Rural Sociology, in 1922 and revised in 1936; with James M. Reinhardt, Current Social Problems, in 1933, revised in 1937. From his main field of endeavor, rural sociology, we may gain an idea of his concept of sociology. Thus from pages 6 and 7 of his Rural Sociology, he says, "If by sociology is always meant a rigidly scientific attempt to account for group phenomena, and if, further, the attempt must be dissociated from utilitarian motives, then the title `rural sociology' is incompetent to express the scientific import of sociological studies of rural communities."

Gillette's presidential address, "Urban Influence and Selection" was published in Volume XXIII of Papers and Proceedings of the Twenty-third Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Society. In this address he pointed out that, as creators and centers of culture, cities dominate greater and greater areas of outlying populations, due to multiplication of kinds of cultural goods and increase in agencies of distribution. The psychosocial effects of this urbanization are seen in the molding and directive influences which urban centers manifest. Psycho-physical effects appear in population movements and redistribution in quantity and quality. The city is accumulating more educated leaders as well as pathological and subnormal classes. The rural areas have a larger proportion of normal but unexceptional persons.

<< Back to ASA Past President Listing Page