Article: Illness Almost Grounded Her Engineering Career

  • Image of an illustration of ElsieMacGill "Queen of the Hurricanes" comic strip

    Summer, 2011, Altitude

    Elsie MacGill is in the history books as the first woman aeronautical engineer in Canada. While this is an important first, it must also be noted that she was an unusually gifted and exceptional engineer; two qualities that would have earned recognition in any case. She is connected to the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada because she was a junior member of the design team that crafted the Fairchild Super 71, the museum’s CF-AUJ.

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    At 24, she was bright, pretty, popular – and even a little famous. She was, after all, the first woman in her country to graduate from university in electrical engineering. Now, she was thought to be the only woman in the world completing an advanced degree in aeronautics, and she was preparing for marriage. Her future burned bright.

    Then a slight tinge of tenderness, barely noticeable, floated across her lower back. It was an odd feeling, different, but not initially disturbing because she had been fighting a flu-like cold for days and sitting long hours at the desk studying. Unconcerned, Elsie MacGill pushed aside the discomforts to join other University of Michigan students celebrating the end of the school year with a night out across the border in Windsor. It was May 1929.

    That evening, her dress seemed to chafe her skin, and at times she was numb and stiff. But once back in her room in Ann Arbour, Elsie went to bed as usual without telling anyone. The next morning something was clearly wrong. When she awoke and touched her back and legs with the tips of her fingers, she felt nothing. Within a single night, Elsie had become completely paralyzed from the waist down. The diagnosis, acute infectious myelitis, suggested an inflammation of the spinal cord, likely related to the mundane virus that had caused her cold. But there was talk of “poliomyelitis,” and the University Hospital staff pronounced her likely to “not walk again.” She was far from her childhood home, her closest friends, and family.

    Over the next few years, Elsie would spend most of her time confined to home, sometimes in pain and often engulfed by the dismal prognosis of a life in bed or, at best, in a wheelchair. In fact, the damage that befell her body that spring never fully left, and eventually would lead indirectly to her death. Yet, 50 years later, those who knew Elsie best would say that the enduring disability engendered by this day was “the least important thing about her.” Such was the life of Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill that a dramatic, lingering event – devastating for some, defining for many – proved ultimately to be a mere sidebar to a greater story, a story that changed the history of Canada, established illustrious milestones in the United States, and touched lives beyond.

    The foregoing is the prologue to the biography, Her Daughter the Engineer: The Life of Elsie Gregory MacGill, written by Richard Bourgeois-Doyle, a writer and journalist currently director of corporate governance at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

    This biography of Elsie MacGill is the first book to cover the full range of her many achievements, that included an appointment as one of the commissioners on the 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The biography’s title is a homage to both Elsie MacGill and her pioneering mother, a recognition that in 1955 Elsie MacGill published a book titled, My Mother the Judge: A biography of Judge Helen Gregory MacGill.

    Her Daughter the Engineer is available in the Windsock Gift Shop for $28.88.

    This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2011 edition of Altitude.

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