Gibb Gilchrist, engineer and university president, was born in Wills Point, Texas, on December 23, 1887. He attended Southwestern University in Georgetown in 1905–06 and received a B.S. in civil engineering from the University of Texas in 1909. From 1910 to 1917 the Santa Fe Railroad employed him as a construction engineer. In World War I he served first as a lieutenant and then as captain of engineers. He became a division engineer with the state highway department in San Antonio and San Angelo at the end of the war and was named state highway engineer in 1924. He married Vesta Weaver in March 1920; they had one son. From 1925 until 1927 Gilchrist was a consulting engineer to private business.
In 1927 he was again appointed state highway engineer, and during the next ten years he administered a program of highway development that expended more than $3 million, including the implementation of the state's farm-to-market road system (see HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT). Gilchrist was president of the American Association of State Highway Officials in 1936, when Secretary of State Cordell Hull appointed him to the permanent International Association of Roads Congress as a representative of the United States.
In 1937 Gilchrist accepted a job as dean of the School of Engineering at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University). He established a Department of Aeronautical Engineering during his first year at A&M. His idea for a flight-training program, together with the development of suitable facilities, resulted in Easterwood Airport. As a member of the directing board, he served the United States Office of Education in engineering, science, and management war-training courses. Austin College awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree in 1939. He also held honorary degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern University. In 1945 he was named chairman of the Texas Post War Economic Planning Commission.
On May 25, 1944, the Texas A&M Board of Directors named Gilchrist to the presidency, and he promptly set about the task of reorganizing the school by integrating its research and extension services into the academic branches. His objectives were twofold: to focus A&M's engineering and agricultural research and instruction on the development of Texas resources and to establish community technical-training centers throughout Texas. He formed new departments and reorganized the engineering department. One of his administration's most important accomplishments was the establishment, on November 14, 1944, of the Texas A&M Research Foundation, a nonprofit state organization that allowed grants to be made to the university for research that would otherwise have been beyond its legal authority to conduct. Gilchrist's foresight allowed for expansion in a multitude of new research areas including oceanography, nuclear power, and aerospace. During his presidency Texas A&M emerged as an engineering school of national reputation.
In his effort toward modernization, Gilchrist ran up against opposition. Most forms of hazing had been banned by state law, and he reorganized student administration and discipline. A student protest resulted in a legislative investigation of the administration during the spring of 1947. Gilchrist's name was cleared, and the entire event was attributed to students who had disagreed with his policies on hazing and had set out to discredit him, aided by faculty disgruntled over his administrative reforms. The board of directors responded in May 1948 by establishing the Texas A&M College System (now the Texas A&M University System) and naming Gilchrist as its first chancellor, effective on September 1, 1948. He served until August 31, 1953. In 1951 he was installed as grand master of Texas Masons, and in 1959 the University of Texas College of Engineering named him a distinguished engineering graduate. The American Society of Civil Engineers named him an honorary member in 1965.
Gilchrist spent his retirement in College Station. He died there on May 12, 1972, and was buried there.