Elisabeth ‘Elsie’ MacGill achieved many firsts in her long and distinguished career as an aeronautical engineer. She was the first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto in 1927, making her the first woman to do so in Canada. MacGill was also the first female aircraft designer in the world. In 1971, she was the first woman to chair a United Nations committee that worked to create internationally accepted aircraft safety guidelines.
Elsie MacGill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1905 to James Henry MacGill, a lawyer, and Helen Gregory MacGill, Canada’s first female judge. Inspired by her career-minded mother, Elsie MacGill decided to enter the aviation industry and graduated with a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1929. Sadly, that same year she was struck with a severe polio infection, which doctors said would permanently paralyse her from the waist down. Not one to be discouraged, MacGill exercised her legs daily and regained limited mobility with the aid of two metal canes. During her recovery, she wrote articles for various aviation publications and saved enough to pay for her doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At age 29, Fairchild Aircraft in Longueuil, Quebec hired Dr. Elsie MacGill as an assistant aeronautical engineer. There she helped to design Canada’s first metal-hulled airplane, the Fairchild Super 71. In 1938, MacGill became Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry (Can Car) in Thunder Bay, Ontario. When war broke out in Europe the following year, British aircraft manufacturers were unable to keep up with the high demand for planes to fight in the ongoing Battle of Britain. Can Car was contracted by the Royal Air Force to support the war effort by building their principle fighter plane, the Hawker Hurricane.
Production at the Can Car plant went into overdrive; the assembly staff swelled from 500 to 3,000 by 1941 (500 of these new hires were women). A total of 1,400 Hurricanes were constructed at an astonishing rate of 20 per week, enough to replace the total losses of the Battle of Britain twice over. MacGill also designed a ‘winterised’ Hurricane, adapting rubberised electro-thermal de-icing strips for wing and tail surfaces.
After the war, MacGill became a technical advisor to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation. She also began using her reputation to advance the cause of women’s rights. In 1967, she was named to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. In 1971, she created the National Action Committee to ensure that the Government upheld the recommendations of the Royal Commission. According to her colleague, Dr. Lorna Marsden, Elsie MacGill’s tireless efforts to improve the safety of aircraft and to advance the cause of women’s rights, “changed the nature of this country legally, economically and certainly in terms of quality of life.”
The fully restored Fairchild Super 71 Prototype, which Elsie MacGill helped to build, is on permanent display at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.