American Sociological Association

John L. Gillin

John Lewis Gillin

John Lewis Gillin

October 12, 1871 - December 1958

John Lewis Gillin was born October 12, 1871 in Linn County, Iowa, the son of Samuel Brallier Gillin and Annie Louisa Straley. Many years later, Gillin recalled that "On the opening day of the Big Head district school in Linn County, Iowa, in the early autumn of 1884, the school bell rang and twenty-five youngsters, of whom I was one, settled into their seats with their eyes glued to the tall man on the teacher's platform." The "tall man" in question was Edward A. Ross, who was in later years to be Gillin's colleague in Sociology.

Gillin received a B.Litt. degree in 1894 from Upper Iowa University, an A.B. degree from Grinnel in 1895, an A.M. from Columbia in 1903, and B.D from Union Theological Seminary in 1904. He became an ordained minister with the Church of the Brethern following completion of his training at Union. He then earned a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1906.

After receiving his Ph.D., Gillin worked at Ashland College in Ohio, even serving as President for one year, and at the State University of Iowa. In 1912 he was invited to move to the University of Wisconsin by Edward A. Ross, his former teacher from 1884 in Linn County, Iowa. He accepted the invitation and became an Associate Professor of Sociology. Gillin spent the remaining 46 years of his professional career with the University of Wisconsin.

Although his interest in sociological theory and history of social thought was active and productive, his reputation rested mainly on his work in criminology and penology. John L. Gillin served as President of the American Sociological Society in 1926. His Presidential Address, "The Development of Sociology in the United States," was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in St. Louis in December 1926.

Upon his death in 1958, the following obituary was published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) in memory of John Gillin:

John Lewis Gillin, after a total of forty-six years in the service of the Department of Sociology of the University of Wisconsin, sixteen of which were nominally those of Emeritus Professor, died in December after a brief illness. Typical of his life-time devotion to the job, he worked at his office up to the very last.

The bare outlines of his career provide no more than a few clues about his sustained interest and zeal, his accomplishments in teaching, research, and public affairs. His academic foundation, like that of other sociological leaders of his time, combined training in the Christian ministry with formal liberal education in several colleges and universities. He entered Upper Iowa University from which he received the B.Litt. in 1894, acquired another Bachelor’s degree, A.B., at Grinnell in 1895, an A.M. at Columbia University in 1903, a B.D. at Union Theological Seminary in 1904, followed by his becoming an ordained Church of the Brethern clergyman, and was awarded the Ph.D. by Columbia University in 1906.

After receiving his doctorate, he held important positions at Ashland College, Ohio, (of which he was President for one year), and at the State University of Iowa. In 1912 he was attracted to the University of Wisconsin by an invitation from one of his former teachers, B. A. Ross, who had joined the Wisconsin staff a few years earlier. The appointment Gillin accepted was that of Associate Professor of Sociology and Secretary of the Department of General Information and Welfare. In accord with the dual character of this appointment, he taught part-time in sociology and also applied himself to the Wisconsin Idea, which included both extension instruction and community and welfare programs in many parts of the state. The establishment of these programs, and the journeys they made necessary, gave him a grasp of many aspects of Wisconsin life that he later declared invaluable.

A list of the chairmanships, secretaryships, and similar activities on State Boards of various kinds, as well as the important national and international posts he occupied with great distinction, is much too long to enumerate here. So too with the honors bestowed on Professor Gillin by learned societies—he was President of the American Sociological Society in 1926—27, colleges, and universities. His entry in Who’s Who in America must serve as reference.

Similarly lengthy is the bibliography of his major books, to say nothing of the articles that he contributed to journals and other publications of both professional and popular character. To cite only those volumes which have gone through several editions:

Outlines of Sociology (with Blackmar), Poverty and Dependency, Criminology and Penology (with Dittmer, Colbert, and Kastler), Social Pathology, and Cultural Sociology (with his son John Philip Gillin).

Although his interest in sociological theory and history of social thought was active and productive, his reputation rested mainly on his work in criminology and penology. Here his critically constructive writings were extensive—so extensive that his equally important role as adviser, consultant, and administrator in Wisconsin perhaps remained obscure outside of the State. Within Wisconsin, Professor Gillin was known to many people who were relatively unfamiliar with his scholarly achievements; what he meant to them was immediate, direct, and personal. It was mainly his interest in social reforms which touched their lives closely. Many a prisoner was grateful that Professor Gillin not only launched programs looking toward his betterment but also took a warm ‘and friendly interest in him as a human being.

In the community, throughout the State, and among his colleagues at Wisconsin the qualities of his personality made a deep impression on all who knew him. Honesty and simplicity sometimes go with a lack of warmth, but in Professor Gillin’s case there was no such lack. Students and colleagues in need of friendly counsel did not hesitate to take him into their confidence, for they could count on his warmly human attitude. His relaxed and easy manner of meeting with people who were troubled or perhaps even obsessed by their problems did not mean any lack of firm principle. He consistently applied in his intimate relations with those who sought his counsel his favorite maxim, “You must love the sinner, but you must also hate his sin.”

It may well be that this combination of honesty, simplicity, warmth, and firm principle accounts for his remarkable influence in advancing many social reforms in Wisconsin. It would be a stubborn legislator or administrator who could not be brought to see the wisdom of the proposals that Professor Gillin took the trouble to recommend.

Along with these qualities there was an optimism about the possibility of social betterment that is often lacking among modern sociologists. Professor Gillin refused to surrender his hope that man can control at least part of his destiny when goodwill is united with the demonstrable conclusions of social science. He was confident that truth, wherever it may seem to lead, can always be put to use in the betterment of the human lot by those who champion the right and the duty to be humane.


University of Wisconsin and Smith College

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Quote regarding his first introduction to Edward Alsworth Ross in 1884 is drawn from "The Personality of Edward Alsworth Ross" by John Lewis Gillin, published in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Jan. 1937), pp. 534-542.