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Canadian women making history: A life of firsts in flying colour

Elsie MacGill (1905 – 1980) the world’s first female aircraft designer
Elsie MacGill. Source: Library and Archives Canada

Born in Vancouver in 1905, Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill, known as Elsie, was the youngest child of a well-known family. Her father was an acclaimed lawyer, and her mother, Helen Gregory MacGill, was British Columbia’s first female judge. However, when Elsie was twelve, her family fell upon hard financial times that would last through the war years. The young girl’s exceptional knack for fixing things played a large role in keeping the MacGills afloat, and led her parents to encourage her to pursue a career in the male-dominated field of engineering.

From 1923 to 1927, MacGill studied applied science in engineering at the University of Toronto. When she graduated, she became the first Canadian woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering. She went on to enrol in the University of Michigan’s Masters of Science in engineering program, specializing in aeronautical engineering. It was during her time in Michigan that she first worked on the design, research and development of aircraft. In 1929, she made history by becoming the first woman in North America — and likely the world — to receive a Masters in aeronautical engineering.

In 1934, Elsie MacGill started work at Fairchild Aircraft in Montreal, where she stood out not only because of her gender, but also her exceptional talent. This reputation led her to be elected to the Engineering Institute of Canada in 1938 — another first for a woman. After nearly a decade at Fairchild, she was named chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry (CanCar) in Fort William. Holding such a position was unheard of for a woman at the time, but MacGill didn’t let the pressure of being the first get in the way of her performance. During her time at CanCar she designed a new training aircraft, the Maple Leaf Trainer II, before being put in charge of a large-scale project for the Royal Air Force: the production of the Hawker Hurricane. Her work on this fighter craft nearly single-handedly built Canada’s reputation as an aircraft construction powerhouse during the Second World War, earning her the nickname of Queen of the Hurricanes.

In 1943, MacGill left CanCar to open an aeronautics consulting business in Toronto. A few years later, she became the first woman to serve as technical advisor for the International Civil Aviation Organization, for which she helped draft the International Air Worthiness regulations for the design and production of commercial aircraft. Later, she was named Chairman of the United Nations Stress Analysis Committee, and was — you guessed it — the first woman ever to chair a UN committee.

In the following years, inspired by the life of her mother, MacGill devoted most of her time to women’s rights advocacy, eventually becoming a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.

Elsie MacGill died in 1980 after dedicating her life to engineering and activism. The long list of honours and awards she received includes the Order of Canada and the Amelia Earhart Medal; she became a member of the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983 and was one of the founding inductees in the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. But above all, she showed millions of girls in Canada and the world that they could accomplish just as much as their male counterparts — if not more.