First, Canadian-born Elizabeth “Elsie” MacGill defied the doctors who told her that her bout with polio would leave her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Then, in 1929, she earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan, the first woman to do so in North American, and likely the world.
In 1942, she became the first woman to be hired as the Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry (CanCar). There she designed and tested the Maple Leaf Trainer. She as particularly proud of the fact that she “accompanied the pilots on all test flights—even the dangerous first flight—of any aircraft I worked on.”
When CanCar got the contract to build the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF), Elsie MacGill, at the age of 35, led a production team of 4,500 workers that produced over 1,500 planes. To make the Hurricane operational in the winter, she designed de-icing controls and a system for fitting skis for landing on snow. Her achievements prompted the January 1942 publication of an issue of True Comics—“Queen of the Hurricanes Elsie MacGill.”
(Thérèse Bonney, a photographer in World War II, was also featured in a 1944 True Comic issue, “Photo-fighter.” I included a black & white copy of the first page in my book Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II.)
Elsie MacGill was the daughter and granddaughter of pioneering women: Her grandmother was a journalist and her mother was the first woman gradate of the University of Toronto, the first woman in the British Empire to receive a degree in music, and Canada’s first, and for a long time, woman judge. Both women were strong women’s rights adocates, a legacy that Elsie MacGill continued:
“Perhaps because of my mother, I never forgot, throughout my long career, that many women in Canada do not have access to the opportunities I enjoyed. I have received many engineering awards, but I hope I will also be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children.”
Images in order: "Queen of the Hurricanes: Elsie MacGill;" "Photo-Fighter; Hawker
Hurricane fighter aircraft that flew in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and was still air-worthy when photographed by Adrian Pingstone in July 2008 and placed in the public domain.”); and Elsie MacGill (March 27, 1905-November 4, 1980).