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First woman to receive an Electrical Engineering degree in Canada and the first woman aircraft designer in the world
Well-respected in Canada and internationally, Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill, more commonly known as Elsie, was a remarkable woman of many accomplishments. She was an engineer, consultant, advisor, author, commissioner and a strong advocate of women's rights.
Elsie was born in Vancouver in 1905. Her mother was Helen Gregory MacGill, a suffragist, newspaper reporter and the first woman judge in British Columbia. Helen worked to change legislation to improve the lives of women and children in Canada and was a strong role model for her daughter. Elsie's father was James Henry MacGill, a well-known lawyer.
The word 'first' is synonymous with the career of Elsie Gregory MacGill. She was the first woman to receive an Electrical Engineering degree in Canada from the University of Toronto in 1927. After graduating from the University of Toronto, she worked for the Austin Automobile Company in Pontiac, Michigan. When the company started producing aircraft, Elsie became very interested in the field of aeronautics. This motivated her to work towards her Master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Michigan. She was the first woman to earn this distinction in 1929. It was also in 1929 that Elsie was afflicted with acute infantile myelitis, a form of polio. Told that she would never walk again, she did not let this deter her. During her recovery period, she supported herself by writing articles on aviation and also later studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was determined and eventually walked again with the aid of two metal canes.
In 1934, she worked for Fairchild Aircraft Limited in Longueuil, Québec as an assistant aeronautical engineer, specializing in stress analysis. She also helped design the first all-metal aircraft built in Canada.
In 1938, Canadian Car and Foundry Company (Can-Car) appointed Dr. MacGill as Chief Aeronautical Engineer. She designed and tested the Maple Leaf II Trainer, used to train pilots. Adding another 'first' to her already growing list of accomplishments, she became the first woman aircraft designer in the world. Although she never achieved her dream of becoming a pilot (as a result of her disability), she insisted on always being a passenger on all test flights. According to her, this was how she could best assess the aircraft's performance.
She was perhaps best known for her work on the Hawker Hurricane fighter airplanes during World War II. These airplanes were instrumental in the Battle of Britain. She was in charge of all engineering work, adapting the Hurricane to fly in cold weather. Between 1939 and 1943, Can-Car built 1,451 Hawker Hurricanes under her leadership. A National Film Board of Canada film called "Rosies of the North" was about the women involved in the production of the Hawker Hurricane at the Canadian Car and Foundry Company. Dr. MacGill was also in charge of all engineering work on the Curtiss-Wright Helldiver fighters for the United States Navy.
Also in 1938, Dr. MacGill was elected as the first woman corporate member of the Engineering Institute of Canada.
Elsie MacGill married E.J. (William) Soulsby in 1943, a widower with two children. It was at this time that she moved to Toronto and started her own private consulting firm specializing in aeronautical engineering.
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.
Dr. MacGill published a biography of her mother in 1955 entitled My mother the judge : a biography of Judge Helen Gregory MacGill. Her mother's strong influence, as well as that of her grandmother, Emma Gregory, inspired Elsie to become involved in women's issues and organizations throughout her whole life. She was President of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs from 1962 until 1964. In 1967, she was appointed as one of the seven Commissioners on the newly-established Royal Commission on the Status of Women. She also filed a "Separate Statement" describing those of her opinions that differed from the majority on the Commission. For example, she wanted abortion removed from the entirety of the Criminal Code.
During her long and distinguished career, she was deservedly awarded many honours: Gzowski Medal of the Engineering Institute of Canada (1941); Award for Meritorious Contribution to Engineering from the American Society of Women Engineers, (first non-American to be named "Woman Engineer of the Year") (1953); Centennial Medal by the Government of Canada (1967); Order of Canada (1971); Julian Smith Award from the Engineering Institute of Canada (1973); Amelia Earhart Medal from the International Association of Women Pilots (1975); and Gold Medal of the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario (1979). She was also inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame in the 1980s, and into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in the 1990s. She even inspired a comic strip entitled "Queen of the Hurricanes: Elsie MacGill."
Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill paved the way for a generation of young women, inspiring them and showing by example that any goal in life is attainable through hard work and determination. She worked tirelessly until her death in 1980.
Bohnert, Beth. "MacGill, Dr. Elsie Gregory: inventor, entrepreneur, scientist". Canadian women : risktakers and changemakers. Etobicoke, Ont. : Women Inventors Project, c1993. P. 83-84
Doyle, Dick. Elsie Gregory MacGill : hawkeyed aeronautical engineer 1905-1980 [online]. Mississauga : Heirloom, 1998. [Cited June 21, 2001]. Access: http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/205/301/ic/cdc/heirloom_series/volume6/volume6.htm
Elizabeth 'Elsie' MacGill 1905-1980 [online]. [Ottawa] : Canada Science and Technology Museum, c2001. [Cited June 21, 2001]. Also available in French. Access: www.science-tech.nmstc.ca/english/about/hallfame/u_i14_e.cfm
Elizabeth Gregory MacGill 'Elsie' - aeronautical engineer and feminist [online]. [Cited June 21, 2001]. Also available in French. Access: http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/205/301/ic/cdc/kespitukik/index.htmldocs/women/ea148380.htm
"Elizabeth M.G. MacGill". High flyers : Canadian women in aviation [online]. [Ottawa] : National Aviation Museum, c1996. [Cited June 21, 2001]. Access: http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/200/301/ic/can_digital_collections/high_flyers/homepage.htm
Inventive women biographies [online]. Toronto : Inventive Women Inc., c2000. [Cited June 21, 2001]. Access: www.inventivewomen.com/library/library_elsiemacgill_on.html
MacGill, Elizabeth M.G. "Position of women in Canada in the engineering profession". Saturday night. Vol. 62, no. 7 (October 19, 1946). P. 28-29
MacGill, Elsie Gregory. My mother the judge : a biography of Judge Helen Gregory MacGill. -- Toronto : Ryerson, c1955. 248 p.
Merritt, Susan E. "Elsie Gregory MacGill (1905-1980) : aeronautical engineer". Her story III : women from Canada's past. St. Catharines, Ont. : Vanwell, c1999. P. 180-193
Rosies of the North [video recording]. Director, Kelly Saxberg. Producers, Joe MacDonald, Graydon McCrea. Montreal : National Film Board, 1999. 1 cassette, 48 min. Closed captioning
Saskatoon Women's Calendar Collective. "Elsie Gregory MacGill". Herstory 1989 : the Canadian women's calendar. -- Moose Jaw, Sask. : Coteau Books, c1988. P. 56
Steed, Judy. "Ahead of her time". Today magazine. (September 13, 1980). P. 4c
Elsie Gregory MacGill's personal papers can be consulted at the National Archives of Canada. MG 31, K7 (Finding Aid #1462). They were donated in 1974 and 1983 and cover the years from 1911 to 1983.