Born in 1905 in Vancouver, Elsie MacGill was a force to
be reckoned with.
In 1927, she became the first woman to graduate as an electrical
engineer from the University of Toronto. She was hired as an engineer by the Austin Automobile Company in
Michigan. When Austin entered the aircraft industry, she became
interested in aeronautics. MacGill enrolled in the University of Michigan, and in 1929
became the first woman to graduate with a Master's degree in aeronautical engineering.
Just before graduation, MacGill was struck by polio and wrote her final
exams from her hospital bed. Not on to quit when told that she
would never walk again, on problems, MacGill spent the next few
years learning to use canes, writing magazine articles on planes and
flying, and continuing her studies at MIT in Boston.
In 1934 she got her first break into the aeronautical business by
securing the position of Assistant Engineer at the Fairchild Aircraft
Company in Montreal. She worked on, primarily, bush aircraft.
In 1938, as war in Europe was looming, MacGill was hired by Canada Car
at its plant in Fort William, now Thunder Bay. Her first task was
the design of the Maple Leaf Trainer II. MacGill's legs were never
strong enough to fly her airplane but she flew in the second seat in
every test flight. An interesting side note on the Maple Leaf
Trainer II is that it was designed for the Mexican air force and never
flown by our own RCAF. The plane was eventually built in Mexico.
By 1939, with war winding up, Canada Car & Foundry
(CC&F) and its Chief Engineer, Elsie MacGill, were contracted by
the RAF to design and build the
Hawker Hurricane. When the
production of the Hurricane was complete in 1943, CC&Fs workforce of
4500 (half of the women), over 1400 aircraft had been
built. Refinements introduced by MacGill on the Hurricane included
skis and de-icing controls for operating in the winter. MacGill's
success with the Hurricane earned her the nickname "Queen of the
Hurricanes". She was even featured in a comic book in the
US under that name.
The CC&F plant went looking for new work to replace the Hurricane
in 1943 and was awarded a contract by the US Navy to build the SB2C
Helldiver. This was not a happy time for either CC&F or for
MacGill. A continuous stream of specification changes from the
aircraft designers meant the mass production of the aircraft was not
possible. The Navy grew frustrated at the delays and instead
of figuring out where the bottle neck really was they visited the
CC&F plant and had Elsie MacGill and the Helldiver line-production
manager, Bill Soulsby, fired.
MacGill and Soulsby were married two weeks later.
MacGill and Soulsby moved to Toronto to set up a consulting
company. In 1946, as Technical Advisor to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization),
she wrote the International Air Worthiness regulations for the design and production of commercial
aircraft, a document which, to this day with some updates, helps keep us
safe in the skies.
But Elsie MacGill was not a one-trick pony - only an engineer. In the 1960s she
worked hard on women's issue. From 1962 to 1964 she served as the national president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs.
In 1967 she was named by Prime Minister Lester Pearson to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and
one of the co-authors of the Commission's report in 1970. She was
awarded with the Order of Canada in 1971.
As a founding member of the National Action Committee, she was involved in
women's issues right up the time her death. 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."
Elsie MacGill died on November 4, 1980 in a car accident in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1983 Elsie MacGill was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of
Fame. In 1992 she was one of the founding-inductees into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in Ottawa.
Fitting tributes to a pioneering Canadian.
go to part 1
CC&F - Birth of a Giant
go to Part 3
CC&F - The Airplane That Flew... But Did Not Take Off
go to part
4 CC&F - The Bomber That Could Have Been