Canada has a long history of amazing women who have helped to change the country and the world in many ways. From notable politicians, entertainers, writers, artists and scientists, Canadian women have helped to make Canada the country it is today.
One of the most notable women in our history though, and one who deserves an entire movie unto herself, is the Queen of the Hurricanes herself: Elsie MacGill.
The first woman in Canada to receive a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and likely the first woman in the world to earn an aeronautical engineering degree, her designs and expertise would be instrumental the Second World War.
Before we get to that, let’s look at her life before the war.
Born in Vancouver on March 27, 1905, her father was James Henry MacGill, a lawyer and part-time journalist, while her mother was Helen Gregory MacGill, a journalist and the first female judge in British Columbia.
Her education as a child was far from ordinary. She was homeschooled in a formal setting and received drawing lessons from iconic Group of Seven artist Emily Carr, and swimming lessons from Joe Fortes, the first lifeguard in Vancouver history. She would later attend George Secondary School and entered the University of British Columbia at the age of 16.
Her mother was a supporter of women’s suffrage, and this would influence MacGill into a career in engineering. She would graduate from the University of Toronto in 1927.
In talking about her life at the University of Toronto, she would say in 1940.
“My presence in the University of Toronto’s engineering classes in 1923 certainly turned a few heads. Although I never learned to fly myself, I accompanied pilots on all test flights, even the dangerous first flight, of any aircraft I worked on.”
During the summers while she was in school, she would work in machine shops to repair electric motors. Just before she graduated, she was diagnosed with polio and told she would need a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She refused this diagnoses and learned to walk again by supporting herself with two strong metal canes. Very independent, she refused to stop driving her Ford Roadster, choosing to lift her bad leg with her hands to push in the clutch.
Once graduated, she would go and work in Pontiac, Michigan and it was during that time the company she worked for began to make aircraft, which pushed her interest in aeronautics. She began to take part-time graduate studies in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan beginning in 1927. In 1929, she became the first woman in the world to be awarded a Master’s Degree in aeronautical engineering.
In 1934, MacGill began to work at Fairchild Aircraft’s operations as an Assistant Aeronautical engineer. In 1938, she became the first woman elected to corporate membership of the Engineering Institute of Canada. By this point, she was making a name for herself in the field. That same year, she published a paper titled Simplified Performance Calculations for Aeroplanes that earned high praise. She also participated in a six part series for the CBC called The Engineer in War Time.
In 1942, she was elected the chairman of the EIC. Later that same year, she became the Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry, becoming the first woman in the world to hold that position. It was there she began to design and test a new aircraft called The Maple Leaf Trainer II. While the plane never entered service in the Commonwealth, ten were sold to Mexico. The plane was the first aircraft designed and produced by a woman. On the first flight of the plane in 1939, she sat in as a passenger.
Soon after, the company was selected to build the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force. With that contract, the factory in Thunder Bay, or Fort William at the time, went from 500 workers to 4,500, half of which were women. MacGill’s task was to streamline operations in the production line as the factory expanded. She designed solutions that would allow the aircraft to operate in the winter, which included fitting the aircraft with skis and introducing de-icing controls. The first of the planes would fly in January of 1940 with her modifications in place.
The Hurricane was slower but more maneuverable than the Spitfire in the battle, and would account for shooting down 1,500 German bombers and planes in the Battle of Britain, accounting for 60 per cent of the kills.
She retooled the entire plant to produce 60,000 different parts, which were designed to be interchangeable so that mechanics in the field could repair the aircraft easily.
By the time the production line had shut down, 1,400 Hurricanes had been produced. For her successful run in making the planes, which played a vital role in protecting the United Kingdom during the Battle of Britain, she would earn the nickname Queen of the Hurricanes.
In an article of The Engineering Journal published in 1940, MacGill would state, “The challenge of winning the war was thrown directly to the Canadian engineer. We are working not just for the satisfaction of winning the fight for our side, but for the glory of hastening peace to the world.”
Her designs for cold weather didn’t just help in the Battle of Britain, they also aided the Russians in their own battles with Germany, who needed those modifications.
CanCar then picked up a contract to build Curtiss SB2C Helldivers, but the continued minor changes from Curtiss-Wright and the U.S. Navy meant that full-scale production took a long time to get started. Bill Soulsby, the works manager, and MacGill were dismissed from the company despite not being at fault for the delays. Soon after in 1943, MacGill would marry Soulsby.
The couple would move to Toronto that year and set up an aeronautical consulting business. In 1946, MacGill became the first woman to serve as a technical advisor for International Civil Aviation Organization. In 1947, she became the first woman to chair a UN committee when she chaired the United Nations Stress Analysis Committee.
After breaking her leg in 1953, MacGill took the opportunity to sort through her mother’s papers and publish a book about her mother called My Mother, The Judge: A Biography Of Judge Helen Gregory MacGill, which was published in 1955.
Also in 1953, she was one of only 50 people, and the only woman, to have her portrait in the Gevaert Gallery of Canadian Executives. Inspired by her mother and grandmother and their work with women’s suffrage, she began devoting more of her time towards women’s rights throughout the 1960s.
From 1962 to 1964, she served as the president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. In 1967, she was named to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada and co-authored the report published by the commission in 1970. She was vocal in her beliefs that a woman should have control over her own body and believed that abortion was a private matter between a woman and her doctor. At the time, abortion was illegal under the Canadian Criminal Code.
In 1967, she was presented with the Centennial Medal.
She also rejected being called a woman engineer, seeing herself as an engineer only. After seeing an article in 1970 that stated women should be trained as engineering aides. She then began to see the challenges for women in engineering on account of their sex and realized she too had dealt with discrimination in her career. She then became a vocal critic of discrimination within the profession and was a strong advocate for women in engineering.
MacGill would receive the Order of Canada in 1971.
Throughout the 1970s, she would receive several awards for her career.
In 1975, she would receive the Amelia Earhart Medal and in 1979, the Ontario Association of Professional Engineers presented her with their gold medal. In addition, she was given honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto in 1973, the University of Windsor in 1976 and Queen’s University and York University in 1978.
She would pass away on Nov. 4, 1980.
In 1983, she was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame and in 1992, she was a founding inductee in the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame.
In 2016, she was one of five finalists to be on the Canadian ten dollar bill.
In 2019, it was announced that the Lakehead District Schools would name their new school the Elsie MacGill Public School, which will open in September of 2020.
Despite her role in aeronautical engineering, she would say the following about her life.
“I have received many engineering awards but I hope I will always be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children.”
Information comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, Google Arts and Culture, CBC, Canadianflight.org,