The life and times of pioneering Canadian aeronautical engineer Elsie MacGill



Elizabeth “Elsie” MacGill left an indelible mark on the aviation industry at a time when opportunities for women in engineering were limited. Guided by her passions and her intellectual interests, she achieved many “firsts” in her academic and professional career. Elsie MacGill was the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree and is recognized as the world’s first female aircraft designer.

Let’s explore the life of Elsie MacGill and her remarkable contributions to the field of aviation.


Family influence and academic success

Elsie MacGill was born on March 27, 1905 in Vancouver, British Columbia. From an early age, she learned that women could achieve anything they wanted. Her grandmother had fought for women’s suffrage and her mother was the first woman in the British Empire to earn a Bachelor of Music degree.

She enrolled at the University of British Columbia to study applied science, then transferred to the School of Practical Science at the University of Toronto in 1923. MacGill was the first woman ever admitted to the engineering program at the establishment. After graduating in 1927, she began her professional career as a mechanical engineer for an automobile company in Pontiac, Michigan, USA. His interest in aeronautics was piqued when the company began manufacturing aircraft.

A woman in a graduation cap and gown shaking hands with a university official

MacGill enrolled at the University of Michigan to study aeronautics and earned her master’s degree in 1929, making her the first female aeronautical engineer. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with poliomyelitis the same year. She returned to Canada to recuperate and was temporarily confined to a wheelchair.

However, contracting poliomyelitis did not hamper his zeal for his new professional field. She made productive use of that time creating aircraft designs and writing articles for aviation publications.

“Hurricane Queen”

Elsie MacGill survived polio and even managed to walk again using canes. In 1934, she was offered a job as an assistant aeronautical engineer at Fairchild Aircraft in Quebec. During her four-year tenure with the company, she drafted aircraft designs and participated in test flights to assess aircraft performance.

In 1938, she took on the role that would bring her the most notoriety – chief aeronautical engineer for the Canadian Car & Foundry company in Ontario, Canada. One of his major projects was a complete redesign of the Maple Leaf Trainer, which McGill designed to British strength requirements. The aircraft ultimately did not enter production, but McGill was praised for overseeing its development from concept through the testing process.

Interior of an assembly plant with a row of fighter jets in the assembly process

Building on her success with the Maple Leaf II, Elsie McGill was then tasked with overseeing the factory’s mass production of the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft that was flown by Canadian and Allied forces during World War II. She was 35 at the time. This responsibility caught McGill’s attention. In 1942, American True Comics published a series about her called “Queen of the Hurricanes”. She oversaw the production of 1,451 aircraft during the war.

Later career

The Canadian Car & Foundry contract for the Hawker Hurricane was completed in 1943. Elsie McGill and factory manager EJ Soulsby left the company shortly thereafter. They married and settled in Toronto, Ontario. McGill then started his own engineering consulting firm, working primarily with clients in the civil aviation field.

A woman wearing glasses and a blazer over a light colored blouse

She brought her expertise to professional organizations and became a committed citizen, following her grandmother. McGill was the first female member of the Engineering Institute of Canada and maintained close ties with her colleagues throughout her career. She served as Canada’s representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization and was the first woman to provide technical expertise on aircraft airworthiness. In the late 1960s, she was a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.

The “Queen of Hurricanes” died in 1980, but her legendary accomplishments had a lasting impact on the aviation industry.

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