This week in science history: The world’s first female aircraft engineer is born
Elsie MacGill as a trailblazing feminist and engineer who oversaw the production of WWII Canadian war planes. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
In the rarefied world of comic book heroes, women are indeed rare: Wonder Woman, Jean Gray, Rogue, and some other marginal characters.
But what about the ‘Queen of the Hurricanes’, who featured in her own story in a 1942 edition of American True Comics?
Elizabeth Muriel Gregory ‘Elsie’ MacGill, born in Vancouver, Canada, on March 27, 1905, was the first woman in the world to earn an aeronautical engineering degree. In 1927 she became the first female graduate of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. And in 1929 she became the first woman to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering and the first practising Canadian woman engineer.
In 1938 she became chief aeronautical engineer of Canadian Car & Foundry (known as Can Car), where she headed the production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during World War II, a key component in the air war over Britain and Europe, thus earning her nickname ‘Queen of the Hurricanes’.
Later in her life, when reflecting on her position at Can Car, she said: “To be chief engineer at 33 years of age is not bad.”
By the time the production line shut down, in 1943, Can Car had produced more than 1400 Hurricanes, and a paper MacGill had written of her experience, ‘Factors Affecting Mass Production of Aeroplanes’, was published in The Engineering Journal.
Among other firsts in MacGill’s career, and prior to her work on the Hurricane, she led the design, construction and testing of a bi-plane called the Maple Leaf II Trainer. Starting with a previous model, MacGill completely re-engineered the plane, seeing the prototype through to aerial testing. The plane never went into full production but it is recognised as the first aircraft designed and produced by a woman.
In organising the Can Car production line, MacGill developed a modular construction system in which the aircraft could be assembled like a child's Meccano set, meaning that in a combat setting they could be repaired using materials from planes downed in action.
MacGill and plant manager E.J. Soulsby left Can Car in 1943. Soon after, they were married and she went on to found a successful consulting engineering company, with a focus on civilian aircraft. She also became a Canadian representative in the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and was the first woman to serve as a technical adviser on aircraft airworthiness.
An ardent feminist, MacGill in 1962 became the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Club national president, and later served as a commissioner on the Royal Commission for the Status of Women in Canada.