Elsie Gregory MacGill (ElecE 2T7) was the first woman to graduate from U of T with an engineering degree and the first Canadian woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering. Nicknamed “Queen of the Hurricanes,” she was also the world’s first female aircraft designer and professional aeronautical engineer, helping to shape Canada into a powerhouse of the aeronautical industry during the Second World War. Yet these are just a few elements of her amazing life story.
SWE magazine, the publication of the U.S.-based Society of Women Engineers, featured MacGill’s career in the cover story of its spring 2011 edition. The article by Dick Bourgeois-Doyle, author of Her Daughter the Engineer: The Life of Elsie Gregory MacGill, is reprinted here in its entirety.
ike their colleagues in the United States, Canadian engineers had many reasons to be proud as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) — a not-for-profit educational and service organization — marked its 60th anniversary celebration in 2010. The creation of SWE in 1950 inspired engineers internationally and touched careers and lives in many countries. Canadians have a unique reason to applaud the Society’s founders, however, because they gave a boost to one of Canada’s national heroines, a person who went on to change the country’s social, economic and legal fabric, and a person who continues to fascinate and inspire six decades later.
Elsie MacGill was involved in SWE early on, being named an honourary member in 1953. By that time, she had established herself as a leader in the engineering profession for many years. Still, despite her accomplishments, MacGill said that she was truly “astonished” when, that same year, the selection committee made her the unanimous choice to receive the second SWE Achievement Award and the mantle of outstanding woman engineer for that year. Her friends and admirers, however, were not astonished at all. PHOTO/ LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA PA-148380
LEADING TECHNICAL ACCOMPLISHMENTS MacGill, the pioneering aeronautical engineer, was celebrated during her career as “Queen of the Hurricanes” and credited with a key role in the mass production of the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft vital to the Battle of Britain and other major engagements of the Second World War. At that time, MacGill was chief aeronautical engineer at the Canadian Car and Foundry plant where more than 1,450 of the innovative fighters were produced in a complex and challenging environment. MacGill’s contributions were not limited to her work in mass-producing the fighter plane. She was also responsible for the design of a winterized version of the Hurricane that featured skis, deicers and other innovative cold-weather equipment that impacted aeronautical systems for years after. Despite this and other high-profile professional achievements that followed the war, MacGill considered her most rewarding times to be the 1930s when she had a front-row seat in the rise of bush flying and northern exploration by air in Canada. As a junior engineer at Fairchild Aircraft near Montreal, she helped in the development of a string of innovative bush planes, including the Super 71, the first all-metal fuselage and monocoque aircraft constructed in Canada. In 1938, at the age of 33, she left Fairchild to assume her senior post with Canadian Car and Foundry, joining another innovative enterprise. Within months, she was assigned sole responsibility for the design of an entire aircraft, the Maple Leaf II Trainer, making her the first woman anywhere to have done so. In each of her positions, MacGill gained respect for her insistence on riding with the pilots to record observations on the dangerous first test flights for her planes. Because she had a disability, she would be carried by colleagues and lifted into the aircraft along with her canes.