Elsie MacGill, Queen of the Hurricanes

Elsie MacGill, Queen of the Hurricanes. Photo courtesy of Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada

Elizabeth “Elsie” Muriel Gregory MacGill

  • Date of birth: March 27, 1905, Vancouver, BC
  • Date of death: November 4, 1980, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Helen Gregory MacGill (1864–1947) and James Henry MacGill (1869–1939)
  • Accomplishments related to: Aeronautics, Engineering, Feminism
  • Major affiliations: Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car); Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs; Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada

 

Known as “Queen of the Hurricanes,” aeronautical engineer and staunch feminist Elizabeth “Elsie” Muriel Gregory MacGill was the world’s first female aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. She became chief aeronautical engineer of Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car) in 1938 in Fort William, where she headed the Canadian production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War.

She was the first female graduate of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto (1927), and the first woman to earn her master’s degree in aeronautical engineering (1929).

Elsie, an active Canadian feminist, was national president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (1962–64) and a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (1967–70).

After graduating with her first degree, Elsie worked as a mechanical engineer with an automobile company in Pontiac, Michigan. The company soon began to make airplanes, leading her to study aeronautics at the University of Michigan, and later, after recovering from polio, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

She returned to Canada in 1934 to work as an assistant aeronautical engineer at Fairchild Aircraft Ltd. in Longueuil, Québec. Working on a variety of aircraft designs, Elsie also developed professional relationships with National Research Council of Canada staff in Ottawa, and even took to the skies while participating in test flights.

In 1938, Elsie took on the job of chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car) in Fort William. Her application for membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada was also accepted that year, and she became the first female member.

At Can Car, Elsie took on many projects, such as designing, building and testing the Maple Leaf II Trainer. She re-engineered the plane, based on a previous model, and brought it to aerial testing. It never went into full production in Canada, but is recognized as the first aircraft designed and built by a woman.

Elsie also retooled the Can Car plant for mass production of the Hawker Hurricane, one of the main fighters used in the Battle of Britain. Holding this top position during wartime, she soon attracted media attention. The American True Comics series dubbed her “Queen of the Hurricanes” in a story published in 1942.

Elsie MacGill

Elsie MacGill, 1946. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada 

Between 1938 and 1943, Elsie oversaw the production of 1,451 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes, and even the first successfully winterized high-speed aircraft with skis and de-icing equipment.

In 1943, she oversaw retooling of the plant to produce the American Curtiss-Wright Helldiver, a plane also known as “The Beast”. Elsie and plant manager E. J. (William) Soulsby were challenged with several design changes, and for reasons and circumstances that remain unclear, they both lost their jobs at Can Car. Elsie and E. J. got married shortly afterwards and moved to Toronto, where Elsie founded her own consulting engineering company and her husband became plant manager at Victory Aircraft Limited in Malton, Ontario.

Elsie, who became an officer of the Order of Canada in 1971, died on Nov. 4, 1980 at the age of 75 while visiting her sister, Helen MacGill Hughes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During her impressive career, she remained active in her profession and as a feminist, strongly advocating for women being treated equally in the engineering field and elsewhere. She received many honorary doctorates from several universities, as well as honours and awards, including a Gold Medal from the Association of Professional Engineers Ontario – the association’s highest honour.

In 2012, a Parks Canada plaque recognizing Elsie’s “remarkable contributions to aeronautical engineering” was hung at the Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay, the former site of Can Car.

Submitted by Brigitte Petersen

In 1999, Rosies of the North was produced by the National Film Board. The film tells the story of Elsie MacGill and other women who worked at Canadian Car and Foundry in Fort William during the second World War. 

Elsie MacGill

Elsie MacGill. Image courtesy of Queen's University Engineering

Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

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