Women's History Month Part 3: Elsie MacGill

October 20, 2017

Written by: Alicen Ricard

Next up for Women’s History Month, we will be profiling a woman in engineering who was not only groundbreaking but was also known as a war hero. Elsie was the first woman in Canada to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering. She was also the first woman in North America (and maybe the world) to earn an aeronautical engineering degree. She was a woman full of firsts.

Source: Queen's Engineering

Elizabeth Muriel Gregory “Elsie” MacGill, OC (Order of Canada) was born on March 27, 1905 in Vancouver. Elsie and her older sister were home schooled while their two older step-brothers went to public school. Their home-schooling was just as formal as the boys’ and included drawing lessons with Emily Carr and swimming lessons with Joe Fortes. Elsie then was able to attend King George Secondary School before getting accepted into the University of British Columbia when she was only sixteen.  

Source: The Record

She attended the applied sciences program at UBC but after a term, the Dean of the faculty asked her to leave because he didn't want a woman in engineering studies. She went on to attend the University of Toronto for a Bachelor of Applied Sciences. During the summers she worked in machine shops repairing electrical motors, therefore using the skills and theories she learned during the school year. This was also where she became exposed to aeronautical engineering. She graduated in 1927 and moved to the United States to continue her studies. She attended the University of Michigan to get a Masters in aeronautic engineering. She was diagnosed with acute infantile myelitis, a form of polio, in 1929, before graduation. She was told she’d never walk again but she refused to believe that. She re-learned how to walk using metal canes. Elsie graduated with her master's degree, despite the odds. She wasn’t done with education yet, though, and went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for another three years.

Source: Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada

From there she worked for a while at Fairchild Aircraft as an assistant aeronautical engineer. In 1938 she became the first woman elected to corporate membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada, and in 1942 she was elected to chairman. Then she got hired as the first woman chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry (CanCar), and her career really took off. She was in charge of designing and testing the Maple Leaf Trainer II. After that was successful, CanCar was chosen by the Royal Air Force to build the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft. Suddenly the factory jumped from around 500 workers to 4500, and half of them were women. Elsie was only 35 when she designed the Hurricane and it only took her a year to produce the first one. After that, they were producing three to four of them per week. She modified them for flying in cold temperatures. By 1943 they had produced over 1400 Hurricanes. Elsie was given the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes” and there was a comic book written about her of the same name.

Source: Women in Engineering

After production of the Hurricanes ended CanCar got a contract with the US Navy to build the Curtiss SB2C Helldivers, but production didn’t go nearly as smoothly and both Elsie and CanCar’s works manager, Bill Soulsby, were let go. The two married in 1943 and moved to Toronto to start an aeronautical consult business. In 1946 she became the first woman to serve as a technical advisor for the International Civil Aviation Organization, and in 1947 she became the first woman on a United Nations committee when she became chairman of the UN Stress Analysis Committee. After her mother died in 1947, she started writing a biography about her titled My Mother the Judge: a Biography of Helen Gregory MacGill which inspired her to be more outspoken on Women’s rights, such as paid maternity leave and liberation of abortion laws. When there was a campaign to put a woman on Canadian currency, she made a shortlist of five women, which also included Viola Desmond (who won), E. Pauline Johnson, Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld, and Idola Saint-Jean. She made so many huge leaps for women over her career until she died in 1980. 

Let us know on Twitter or Facebook what historical woman in STEM you think would be cool to have a comic book of.