The story of Elsie MacGill is an amazing tale of brains, education and drive. The story begins before Elsie was born. Her mum, Helen, was an amazing person in her own right. Helen was the first woman in the empire to earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Music, 1886). By 1890 Helen had completed her second degree in the arts, eventually going on to get a masters Degree in Mental and Moral Philosophy. To reinforce this amazing career, she also taught herself law, becoming the first female judge in BC! (1917)
Elsie was born in Vancouver, on the 27 March 1905. She was the first of two girls and also a sister to two half-brothers. Elsie was a keen student, entering the University of Toronto in 1923. She graduated four years later as the first woman to graduate from the engineering dept. with an electrical engineering degree (age 22).
At this point, Elsie was hired by the Pontiac car company as an engineer. This made her the very first woman to work as a practising engineer. When the company began to build aircraft, Elsie was bitten by the flying bug. Working during the day, she began part-time studies at the University of Michigan. She graduated in 1929 with a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. This made her the first woman in the world to hold an aeronautical degree!
This helped Elsie get a job at the Fairchild aircraft company in 1934. she gained four years’ experience working as an assistant engineer, finally going on in 1938, to be hired as chief engineer at the Canadian Car and Foundry Company(CanCar).
Her first job at Can Car was to help design the production line for the Maple Leaf II Trainer. The project for which she would be remembered most was as lead engineer on the Hawker Hurricane production line. The press was quick to jump on this story as Elsie was the first female to hold such a position in any company. In 1942, a comic book wrote about Elsie and her job giving her the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes”.
Once production ceased on the Hurricane, Can Car began production on the Curtis Helldiver (“The Beast”). Again, Elsie was the lead engineer assisted by plant manager William Soulsby. This time though, production didn’t go as smoothly. Curtis was continually changing the design sending change after change. Eventually heads had to roll and it was Elsie and Mr. Soulsby who were marched out of the plant by security. No explanation was ever given as to whether they were fired or quit but neither had any ill affects to their professional careers. It was soon after this event that the two of them married!
Elsie went on to build her own engineering company. She also became a Canadian representative in the international aviation organisation. She also notched up another first as a technical advisor on aircraft airworthiness.
Elsie died on November 4th 1980 while visiting her sister Helen. Her loss was a great shock to all who knew her. At 75, she had remained active throughout her life, holding many great appointments. One of the last was to the advisory committee for the International Year of the Disabled Persons, which had been planned for 1981. Elsie was a pioneer and ardent feminist who accomplished so much during her life. She was rewarded and recognised for her work, and what follows is a list these achievements.
- Gowski medal, Engineering Institute of Canada(1941)
- Award for Meritorious Contribution to Eng. society of women engineers(1953)
- Canadian Centennial medal, Govt of Canada(1967) Officer, Order of Canada(1971)
- Fellow, Eng. Inst. Of Canada(1972)
- Julien Smith medal, Eng. Inst. of Canada(1973)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Toronto
- Amelia Earhart medal, International Assn. Of Women Airline pilots(1975)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Windsor
- Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal(1977)
- Honorary Doctorate, Queens University & York University(1978)
- Gold Medal, Assn. Of Prof Eng. Of Ontario(1979)
- Inducted into the Univ. of Toronto Eng. Hall of Distinction
- Inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame(1983)
- Creation of the Elsie MacGill Memorial Foundation(1984)
- Toronto Historical Plaque @ the Univ. of Toronto(1987)
- Inducted into the Canadian Science & Eng. Hall of Fame(1992)
- Canadian Eng. Memorial Foundation renames women friendly schools/faculties Award, the Elsie MacGill Award(2000)
- Creation of the Elsie MacGill Northern Lights Award(2009)
- Inducted into the Women In Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame(2002)
- Parks Canada plaque placed at the Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay(2012)