Elizabeth “Elsie” Muriel Gregory MacGill, OC, “Queen of the Hurricanes,” aeronautical engineer, feminist (born 27 March 1905 in Vancouver, BC; died 4 November 1980 in Cambridge, Massachusetts). The first female graduate of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto (1927), MacGill was also the first woman to earn her master’s degree in aeronautical engineering (1929) and become the first practising Canadian woman engineer. In 1938, she became chief aeronautical engineer of Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car), where she headed the Canadian production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War. An active feminist, MacGill was national president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (CFBPWC) (1962–64) and a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (1967–70).
born 27 March 1905, died 4 November 1980
First woman aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer
Key Canadian feminist
Oversaw production of fighter planes during WWII
“Queen of the Hurricanes”
Family and Early Life
Elsie MacGill was born in 1905 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the second daughter to Helen Gregory MacGill (1864–1947) and James Henry MacGill (1869–1939). Elsie’s sister, Helen Jr., was born in 1903, and the sisters’ bond was so close that the family often referred to them as “HelNelsie.” The girls had two half-brothers, Eric Herbert Gregory (1891) and Frederic Philip Gregory (1894), from their mother’s first marriage to Frederick Charles Flesher, who died in 1901.
Helen Gregory MacGill was a role model for her daughters: a pioneer in education, she was the first woman in the British Empire to earn her bachelor’s degree in music (1886) and by 1890 had completed Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in mental and moral philosophy. After her first husband died in 1901, she worked as a journalist to support her two young sons. The following year, she married former classmate James Henry MacGill, who was a journalist, lawyer and deacon of the Church of England. Helen Gregory MacGill also taught herself law and, in 1917, became the first woman judge appointed in British Columbia.
Both parents shared aspects of their legal practice with their family, while Helen Gregory MacGill laid the groundwork for their feminist development with the assistance of the children’s maternal grandmother, suffragist Emma Gregory. Feminism was, therefore, woven into the children’s lives from an early age.
Education and Early Career
Elsie MacGill attended public school prior to enrolling in applied science at the University of British Columbia in 1921. In 1923, after the completion of her first two years, she enrolled at the University of Toronto’s School of Practical Science (SPS) in electrical engineering. This was a bold move, as she was the first woman admitted to the engineering program and, at times, her presence caused quite a stir among her male colleagues. However, by graduation, any questions regarding her suitability as an engineer were largely laid to rest. In fact, MacGill forged many strong friendships with classmates, and she maintained a lifelong relationship with her graduating class, serving prominently within its class alumni organization.
MacGill graduated in 1927 and found employment as a mechanical engineer with an automobile company in Pontiac, Michigan, working on stress analysis in automobiles. When the company started producing airplanes, she decided to learn more and started part-time studies in aeronautics at the University of Michigan. Before long, these studies became full time and, in 1929, she successfully completed her master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. This was a groundbreaking step for women, as it effectively made her the first woman aeronautical engineer in the world. However, MacGill’s celebration was cut short when she was diagnosed with polio.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1929, Elsie MacGill contracted polio (poliomyelitis), a contagious viral disease that can cause paralysis, breathing problems and even death. Major outbreaks of polio occurred in Canada from 1910 until 1959; the worst epidemic (in 1953) resulted in 9,000 paralytic cases and 500 deaths. In the early 1970s, the disease was brought under control by the Salk vaccine and Sabin oral vaccine. In 1994, the country was certified “polio-free.” (See also Canada and the Development of the Polio Vaccine.)
After her diagnosis and temporary confinement to a wheelchair, MacGill spent time recovering at home in Vancouver. In addition to her physiotherapy regimen, she drafted aircraft designs, wrote articles on aviation for popular publications like Chatelaine and participated in some of her mother’s feminist activities, including joining the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (CFBPWC).
Once she was back on her feet, she continued her postgraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) until an offer to work as an assistant aeronautical engineer lured her back to Canada in 1934. This was a remarkable opportunity, as jobs were scarce during the Great Depression and Fairchild Aircraft Ltd. in Longueuil, Québec, was doing cutting-edge work. As a result, MacGill worked on a variety of aircraft designs and forged important professional relationships with the aeronautical staff at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in Ottawa, Ontario. She also demonstrated her bravery by insisting on going up on dangerous test flights to monitor the performance of her designs.
In 1938, two important professional developments occurred in MacGill’s life: she received an offer of employment as chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car) in Fort William, Ontario (now Thunder Bay, Ontario), and her application for membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada was accepted, making her the first woman member of the professional association.
Chief Aeronautical Engineer
Upon her arrival at Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car), MacGill undertook numerous projects, including the design, construction and testing of the Maple Leaf II Trainer. While it was based on a previous model, MacGill completely re-engineered the plane and did so at impressive speed, seeing the prototype through to aerial testing very early in her tenure at Can Car. While the plane never went into full production in Canada, it is recognized as the first aircraft designed and produced by a woman.
After this achievement, MacGill oversaw the retooling of the Can Car plant so that it could mass-produce the Hawker Hurricane, one of the main fighters flown by Canadian and Allied airmen in the Battle of Britain. This was a massive undertaking, and the media was quick to latch onto the fact that a woman was serving as Can Car’s chief aeronautical engineer during wartime. Numerous articles were written about MacGill and, in 1942, the American True Comics series ran a story about her in which they dubbed her the “Queen of the Hurricanes.”
DID YOU KNOW?
From 1938 to 1943, Elsie MacGill was chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry, which was commissioned to build Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War. MacGill oversaw the production of 1,451 planes and designed a winterized version with skis and de-icing equipment. This project represented the first successful winterization of a high-speed aircraft.
After the Hawker Hurricane contract ended in 1943, MacGill once again oversaw the retooling of the plant, this time to produce the American Curtiss-Wright Helldiver. Nicknamed “The Beast,” this plane was especially difficult to work with on account of the numerous design changes sent from the United States. In the midst of these design challenges, MacGill and plant manager E.J. (William) Soulsby were marched out of the plant in 1943.
It is not clear whether MacGill and Soulsby resigned from their positions or were dismissed (or for what reasons). Shortly after, the two were married and relocated to Toronto, Ontario. Regardless of the reasons that they left Canadian Car & Foundry, neither suffered professionally. Soulsby went on to a new position as plant manager at Victory Aircraft Limited in Malton, Ontario. MacGill, who received strong support from her professional colleagues at the Engineering Institute of Canada, went on to found her own successful consulting engineering company.
MacGill undertook a number of different contracts that increasingly concentrated on civilian aircraft. She also became a Canadian representative in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and, before long, became the first woman to serve as a technical advisor on aircraft airworthiness.
MacGill was not afraid to question government policy when it came to the balance between civil and military aviation. In 1956, she submitted a report to the Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects that questioned the focus of Canadian aviation on military projects without proper consideration of the development of civil aviation. MacGill’s words of caution seemed fully justified when the Diefenbaker government cancelled the Avro Arrow (a defence project) in 1959, which effectively put all Canadian aviation into a tailspin.
Elsie MacGill was a trail-blazing engineer and prominent Canadian feminist. As a liberal feminist, she believed in change via the reform of existing laws and policies. She also had some radical ideas for the time; for instance, MacGill believed that women should have full control over their own bodies and, as a result, considered the controversial issue of abortion a private matter between a woman and her doctor. (At the time, abortion was illegal under the Canadian Criminal Code — it was decriminalized in 1988.)
After her mother died in 1947, MacGill was determined to capture her important achievements and so she published My Mother the Judge: A Biography of Helen Gregory MacGill (1955). This project served to reignite MacGill’s feminist activism, leading to her renewed participation in the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (CFBPWC). Before long, she rose to key leadership positions, including provincial president (1956–58) and national president of the CFBPWC (1962–64). In both positions, she championed women’s role in society and advocated that Canada would improve as a whole with the proper consideration and use of “womanpower.”
Shortly thereafter, she was appointed as a commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (1967–70), where she was acknowledged by her commission peers as the leading feminist amongst them. Commission chair Florence Bird lauded MacGill’s keen leadership and organizational skills. For the rest of her life, MacGill worked to see as many of the report’s 167 recommendations implemented as possible via individual and joint efforts with such organizations as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) and the Ontario Committee on the Status of Women (OCSW).
Although a key feminist, MacGill rejected the label “woman engineer.” Her perspective was that she was an engineer, period — the fact that she was a woman did not need to be highlighted, as she had proven time and again that her sex in no way impacted her ability to do her job. MacGill's rise in engineering had been relatively unchallenged and she was largely blind to any discrimination she experienced. As a result, she did not personally see the engineering profession as discriminatory, and while she actively supported women taking up science and engineering, her feminist activism for women in the professions focused elsewhere.
It was not until 1970, following publication of a controversial article that proposed training women as “engineering aides,” that she fully realized the challenges women in engineering faced on account of their sex. In the article, Dr. F.P.J. Rimrott based his idea of creating this new, subordinate position on his assumption that, “Women favour jobs that do not involve certain duties of which some are, unfortunately, characteristic of engineering, such as design, risk projects, travel, field or shop work, physically and mentally demanding tasks, supervisory functions and major responsibilities.” The article caused an intense debate about women in engineering, and prompted MacGill to reflect on her own career and acknowledge that she too had faced discrimination. She became a vocal critic of discrimination within the profession and a strong advocate of women in engineering.
On 4 November 1980, MacGill died while visiting her sister, Helen MacGill Hughes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her loss was a shock to all who knew her. At 75 years of age, MacGill had remained professionally active, and the previous year had received the Association of Professional Engineers Ontario’s highest honour – the Gold Medal. Her continued feminist activism included support for the UN’s International Women’s Year in 1975 via the CFBPWC. She was also involved in a number of other activities, including an appointment to the Advisory Committee for the International Year of Disabled Persons, which was planned for 1981.
Honours and Awards
- Gzowski Medal, Engineering Institute of Canada (1941)
- Award for Meritorious Contribution to Engineering, Society of Women Engineers (1953)
- Canadian Centennial Medal, Government of Canada (1967)
- Officer, Order of Canada (1971)
- Fellow, Engineering Institute of Canada (1972)
- Julian Smith Medal, Engineering Institute of Canada (1973)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Toronto (1973)
- Amelia Earhart Medal, International Association of Women Airline Pilots (1975)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Windsor (1976)
- Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977)
- Honorary Doctorates, Queen’s University and York University (1978)
- Gold Medal, Association of Professional Engineers Ontario (1979)
- Inducted into the University of Toronto’s Engineering Hall of Distinction (1980)
- Inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame (1983)
- Creation of the Elsie Gregory MacGill Memorial Foundation (1984)
- Toronto Historical Plaque at the University of Toronto (1987)
- Inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame (1992)
- Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation renames Women Friendly Schools/Faculties Award the Elsie MacGill Award (2000)
- Creation of the Elsie Gregory MacGill Northern Lights Award (2009)
- Inducted into the Women in Aviation International’s Pioneer Hall of Fame (2012) Parks Canada plaque placed at the Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay, Ontario (formerly Canadian Car & Foundry) (2012)