Canadian aeronautical engineer and feminist Elsie MacGill (1905–1980) was the first woman in the world to receive a master's degree in aeronautical engineering, as well as the first woman to design an entire airplane. During World War II, MacGill oversaw Canadian production of and designed key upgrades to the Hawker Hurricane, an important fighter plane. Along with her professional accomplishments, she advocated for the rights of women and children, for which she was awarded the Order of Canada.
Known by her nickname Elsie, Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on March 27, 1905. The youngest daughter of James Henry MacGill, a prominent local lawyer and journalist, and Helen Gregory MacGill, a journalist and jurist, MacGill was rigorously home-schooled, for hers was a family who valued education. Helen MacGill was the first woman in the British Empire to earn a bachelor's degree in music; she then taught herself the law, and in 1917 was appointed the first woman judge in British Columbia. Her father, James Henry MacGill, was a prominent immigration lawyer, journalist, and Anglican deacon. On MacGill's mother's side, grandmother Emma Gregory was a prominent suffragist (advocate for women's right to vote), and her greatgrandfather was a noted lawyer and judge.
MacGill was the youngest of four children: her older brothers Eric and Frederic were from her mother's previous marriage, while sister Helen was two years older and a cherished confidante. The two sisters were so close, in fact, that they referred to themselves as “HelNelsie.” While the brothers enrolled at Lord Roberts', a rigorous public school, the sisters were home-schooled to an equally high standard, with lessons designed to match Lord Roberts' curriculum. They eventually attended King George Secondary School, which was affiliated with McGill University, after which MacGill matriculated at the University of British Columbia at age 16.
Feminism was woven into the fabric of MacGill's childhood. Frequent guests to the family's home included leading proponents of women's rights such as activist Nellie McClung and painter Emily Carr. When MacGill and her sister were teens, Helen MacGill purchased a small cottage near the water outside Vancouver, and this gradually became a women-only gathering place. There the sisters, mother Helen, and Helen's friends would fish, cook, chop wood, maintain the cottage, and enjoy a convivial getaway.
Even as a child, MacGill had a knack for fixing things, and this talent came in handy when her father's immigration law practice diminished due to political events and poor investments. British Columbia had relied on immigrant labor for much of its expansion and development, with workers pouring in from Europe, China, and Japan. The province's Anglo, white majority protested and passed laws that greatly restricted further immigration. The family's income was much reduced as her father's law practice shrank, forcing a move to a smaller, rented house. Her mother's appointment as a judge in the juvenile courts helped, as would her daughter's mechanical talents, which also sparked conversations about possible career paths.
After two years at the University of British Columbia, MacGill was accepted into the applied sciences program at the University of Toronto, the first woman so honored. Her male colleagues had varying reactions to her presence, but she won them over. She was not disconcerted by the coarse slang used by her professors and fellow students in lieu of technical terms, and she worked as hard as any male classmate. She spent summers in machine shops, repairing electrical motors, and at graduation in 1927, she became Canada's first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering. During her studies at the University of Toronto, MacGill made many lifelong friends, and she remained active in the program's alumni group.
Moving across the border to Pontiac, Michigan, MacGill found a job with a car manufacturer, performing stress analyses on auto parts. When the company switched to aircraft manufacture, she became interested in studying aeronautics. Starting part-time at the University of Michigan, she was soon hooked and enrolled as a full-time student. Completing her master of science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1929, MacGill was the first woman aeronautical engineer in the world.
Any celebration of this accomplishment was cut short, however, when MacGill was diagnosed with polio. She had been feeling poorly for a few days and attended a graduation get together at the beach, in spite of a tingling sensation in her lower back. She awoke the following morning and was unable to feel her legs. Hospitalized, she was told she would never walk again. All plans were canceled, including postgraduate work, and her engagement to be married. She returned to her parents house in Vancouver to begin a three-year convalesce, and was confined to bed and wheelchair.
First identified as a virus in 1908, poliomyelitis has greatly been eradicated since a vaccine for the disease was developed by Jonas Salk in the mid-20th century. There is no cure for polio, and when MacGill contracted the virus, the prognosis for recovery was unsure. Determined to speed her recovery, the college graduate trained herself to walk with the aid of two sturdy metal canes. She kept her spirits up by participating in her mother's feminist projects and joining the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. She also continued her aviation design work and wrote articles on aviation for popular magazines. The income from selling these articles helped pay her medical expenses, and also funded the beginning of her doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when her convalescence came to an end.
MacGill enrolled at MIT in 1932 and remained there for two years before a job offer drew her back to Canada. North America was by now in the depths of the Great Depression and jobs were scarce. The offer from Fairchild Aircraft, Ltd., in Longueuil, Quebec, was for a assistant aeronautical engineer. Fairchild Aircraft was a leader in their field and MacGill jumped at the chance to work on an array of aircraft designs. Moving to eastern Canada, she connected with new colleagues and formed important professional relationships.
Now an aircraft designer, MacGill began what would become a lifelong and very brave habit of joining the pilot on the test flights for every plane she had helped to design. The first time a newly designed craft is flown is fraught with risk, but MacGill felt strongly that by sitting near the pilot, she would have the best feedback on how well her designs handled in the air.
Her work was exceptionally good, and her reputation grew. In 1938, Canadian Car & Foundry Company (Can-Car), hired MacGill to be their chief aeronautical engineer and she took on the task of designing the Maple Leaf II, a military training biplane. The Maple Leaf II tested positively and safely, although the Royal Canadian Air Force felt that a military trainer should be a bit more challenging for its purposes. Ultimately, the project was sold to Mexico, whose air force built a small fleet of the planes.
When World War II erupted in 1939, Canada came to the aid of mother country Great Britain and Can-Car was hired to build military aircraft. MacGill's assignment was to design and oversee the retooling of the company's production facilities to allow mass-production of the Hawker Hurricane fighter. Thousands of blueprints arrived from Great Britain, and MacGill used these to design machines to manufacture close to 60,000 different parts required for each fighter. The parts were designed to fit together like a child's construction set, very simply, to allow them to be quickly repaired under wartime conditions.
Along with the design of machines, parts, and processes, MacGill oversaw the training of hundreds of unskilled workers for the production line, which was fully functional within a year. She oversaw the 4,500 workers producing the 1,451 Hawker Hurricanes Can-Car manufactured between 1939 and 1943, one out of every ten Hurricanes produced worldwide. MacGill added design modifications for winter flying, including de-icing equipment and skis for snow landings in the northern latitudes of Eastern Europe.
For her part in transforming Canada into a major contributor to the war effort, MacGill was hailed as a war hero. She authored and presented an award-winning technical paper, “Factors Affecting Mass Production of Aeroplanes,” which was published in the respected Engineering Journal, and also was a guest on Canada's national radio. A comic book about her exploits was even published in the United States, in which she was dubbed “Elsie MacGill, Queen of the Hurricanes.”
In 1943, MacGill married E.J. (Bill) Soulsby, a colleague from Can-Car with whom she had worked on a contract for the U.S. Navy. Eventually dismissed by the company (reportedly due to their romantic relationship), the new couple moved to Toronto. Soulsby was hired on as plant manager at a local aircraft company and he also helped MacGill start an aeronautical consulting business. Aided by her many connections within the industry, she consulted on a number of projects, increasingly in the area of civilian aircraft.
In 1946, MacGill was hired as technical advisor to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), where she helped draft International Air Worthiness regulations guiding the design and production of commercial aircraft. The following year, she was asked to chair the United Nations Stress Analysis committee, becoming the first woman committee chair of that organization. In 1952, she presented a paper on airliner design to the Society of Women Engineers, winning their engineering award a year later.
Suffering a broken leg in 1953, MacGill had the chance to take time off from her career. Her mother had died in 1947, leaving boxes of papers and memorabilia from her long and storied career as a journalist, feminist, and judge. MacGill decided to go through it all, with the idea of writing her mother's biography. The resulting book, My Mother, the Judge: A Biography of Judge Helen Gregory MacGill, was published in 1955. This work inspired her to advance the work done by her mother and grandmother in the area of women's rights. She recognized that she had many advantages; most women in Canada and the world were still barred from many occupations and were paid less when they did the same work as men. Other obstacles were also to be overcome in the areas of education and unique challenges faced by working mother.
MacGill continued working in the aeronautical profession, and was instrumental in the Canadian government's shift back to civil aviation. She also became committed to women's issues and organizations, serving as president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs in the early 1960s, and taking a post within the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. Within this organization, she co-authored a major report delivered to the Canadian government in 1970, contributing a separate position paper stating her specific recommendations. MacGill also worked with the Ontario Status of Women Committee, for which she received the Order of Canada in 1971.
MacGill's post-retirement years remained busy due to her role in professional and feminist organizations. She followed through on the report she had helped author in 1970, to ensure that its many recommendations were acted upon. She also advocated for women in the field of engineering. Although she had held high positions as an engineer and had been honored for her work, most women remained relegated to support roles, regardless of their qualifications.
At age 75, MacGill was scheduled to join the advisory committee for the International Year of Disabled Persons, and 1981 promised to present her with several other projects. Tragically, while visiting her sister, Dr. Helen MacGill Hughes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was involved in a traffic accident and died on November 4, 1980. Canada has honored the memory of Elsie MacGill, Queen of the Hurricanes, with her induction into both the Aviation Hall of Fame and the Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, and the creation of the Elsie MacGill Memorial Foundation and several awards in her name.
Bourgeois-Doyle, Richard I., Her Daughter the Engineer: The Life of Elsie Gregory MacGill, NRC Research Press, 2008.
Sisson, Crystal, Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill, Second Story Press, 2014.
Herizons, spring 2015, Penni Mitchell, “Elsie MacGill Led Fighter Plane Production,” p. 34.
SWE, the Magazine of the Society of Women Engineers, spring 2011, Richard Bourgeois-Doyle, “Six Decades Later, SWE Pioneer Elsie MacGill Continues to Inspire,” pp. 28–32.