Synopsis

A trail blazing Canadian engineer and advocate of women's rights, MacGill was known as “Queen of the Hurricanes” for her work during World War II overseeing production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes.

Family and education

Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia on March 27, 1905. Her mother was Helen Gregory MacGill*, British Columbia's first (and Canada’s third) female justice. Helen MacGill was an advocate of women's suffrage, and her attitudes strongly affected young Elsie.

Elsie became Canada's first female electrical engineer when she graduated with a degree from the University of Toronto in 1927. After graduating she joined the Austin Automobile Company in Pontiac, Michigan. Austin switched to aircraft production, prompting Elsie to study in the field of aeronautics, and to pursue a Master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Michigan. in 1929, during her final year of study, she was afflicted with a form of polio, acute infantile myelitis. She was unable to complete her finals, but was awarded her Master’s Degree based on her prior work, becoming the first woman in North America to earn this degree.

Doctors told her that she would never walk again, but she eventually overcame this disability and was able to walk using a pair of metal canes. To help pay her medical bills, she wrote magazine articles about aircraft. She also studied further at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning her Ph.D.

Engineering career

In 1934, Elsie was recovered enough to resume her engineering career. She joined Fairchild Aircraft Ltd. in Montreal as an aeronautical engineer. She conducted stress analysis and participated in the design the first all-metal aircraft built in Canada, and conducted wind tunnel tests at the National Research Council of Canada.

In 1938 Elsie joined the Canadian Car and Foundry Company as Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario. One of her first projects was design and testing of the Maple Leaf Trainer. Her design gave student pilots improved visibility and stability during take-off and landing. Her disability prevented her from piloting, but she was always a passenger on test flights, insisting that this allowed her to best assess aircraft performance.

She was best known for her work as chief engineer for the Hawker Hurricane, adapting the Hurricane for cold weather. Between 1939 and 1943, her plant built 1,451 Hawker Hurricanes, some of which saw action in the Battle of Britain. Dr. MacGill also took charge of engineering work on the United States Navy's Curtiss-Wright Helldiver fighters for use in the Pacific theatre.

In 1937, she became the first woman admitted to corporate membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada.

Elsie moved to Toronto in 1943 and started her own aeronautical engineering business.

In 1946, she became the first female Technical Advisor to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization. She was Chair of the Stress Analysis Committee, and helped to draft the International Airworthiness regulations for the design of commercial aircraft.

Social issues

In 1967, Elsie was appointed as one of seven Commissioners on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. She was viewed as the "feminist" on the commission (as much epithet as compliment at the time.) In addition to the 1970 Royal Commission Report on the Status of Women, Elsie filed a "Separate Statement" describing her differences of opinion from the majority report, including her recommendation to remove abortion from the Criminal Code of Canada. In addition to reform of abortion laws, Elsie campaigned for paid maternity leave and day care facilities. MacGill once said: "I have received many engineering awards, but I hope I will also be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children."

Awards

Elsie has been inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame and the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame.

Epilogue

Elsie MacGill died on November 4, 1980. Elsie MacGill's personal papers are preserved in the National Archives of Canada.

The Elsie MacGill Award is awarded annually by the Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation to the university that has taken the most significant steps to improve the learning environment and atmosphere for female engineering students.


* Mini-quest: Suffrage crusader and jurist Helen Gregory MacGill deserves her own node. Lord Brawl offers XP awards and other kudos to the author of a well-researched writeup.


Sources:
http://www.pch.gc.ca/poh2001/r6/h1_e.cfm
http://collections.ic.gc.ca/high_flyers/macgill.htm
http://www.inventivewomen.com/library/library_elsiemacgill_on.shtml
http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/2/12/h12-409-e.html
http://collections.ic.gc.ca/heirloom_series/volume6/46-49.htm

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