Elsie MacGill went to college in the early 1920s, a time in which women didn’t work as engineers. But she had her dream and mindset that “our direction in life is determined by something within us.” And she had the love and support of parents who were active participants in the feminist movement, and an example in her mother, who worked as one of the first female judges and for a while the only female judge in Canada.
So she began her studies at the University of Toronto in 1923 in electric engineering. Four years later she graduated, becoming the first woman in Canada to earn a degree in electric engineering. Speaking of her experience, Elsie said, “My presence in the University of Toronto’s engineering classes in 1923 certainly turned a few heads. One professor, who was unaware that his large class of men had, for the first time, been invaded by a ‘lady’, began his opening lecture using the common engineering terminology: male and female fittings, flat bastard file and bastard thread, to name a few of the least offensive terms. At the first hint of a double meaning the men in the class exploded in laughter and the poor professor was reduced to confusion and blushes. However, none of this was enough to stop me from continuing my education.”
She then moved to the U.S. for work and to study for a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan.
Towards the end of the master’s program she developed polio. Paralyzed from the waist down with doctors believing she’d never walk again, Elsie finished her degree. She wrote her final exams while in the hospital. Then with focus and exercise, over time, she also began walking with the assistance of two canes.
Elsie went on to become an accomplished engineer, rising to the role of Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry. Amongst a number of responsibilities, during WWII she focused on making production line operation efficient as demand for development increased, and to design solutions to ensure the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft, which the company was now in charge of building for the Royal Air Force, could operate during the winter.
As her career progressed, she took an increasing role in advocating for women’s rights. In her words, “I have received many engineering awards, but I hope I will also be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children.”
Elsie passed away at seventy-five in 1980.
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“Elsie MacGill: a snapshot biography.” sources:
- Montagnes, James. “Canada’s Only Girl Chief Aero Engineer: Pretty Elsie MacGill, Once of M. I. T., is Whiz at Her Job, but Likes to Knit, Cook, Play Bridge, Too.” Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960), Apr 28 1940, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. 17 July 2020.
- “Elizabeth ‘Elsie’ MacGill 1905-1980,” Canada Science and Technology Museum, https://www-archives.ingeniumcanada.org/V2-Science-Tech/english/about/hallfame/u_i14_e.cfm.html
- Sissons, Crystal. “Elsie Gregory MacGill: Engineering the Future and Building Bridges for Canadian Women, 1918–1980.” Order No. NR50755 University of Ottawa (Canada), 2008. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 17 July 2020.
“Elsie MacGill: a snapshot biography.” Historical Snapshots.