“I was always a sort of Miss Fix-it around the house. I was interested in radio work so I started out planning to be a radio engineer.”
Elsie MacGill was born in 1905 in Vancouver, British Columbia, but later moved to Ontario to attend the University of Toronto. In 1927, she became the first woman in Canada to obtain an applied science degree in Electrical Engineering. Two years later, she was the first woman in North America to graduate with a master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering, which she received from the University of Michigan. She accomplished this in spite of becoming ill with polio in her last year of study. Throughout the rest of her life she used crutches to move about.
In the late 1930s, Elsie accepted the position of Chief Aeronautical Engineer in the aircraft division of the Canadian Car and Foundry Company in Fort William, Ontario. It was here that she designed the Maple Leaf Trainer II, which was the first aircraft to be designed by a woman. The aircraft’s innovative design gave pilots greater visibility and stability during take-offs and landings.
When the company won a contract to produce Hurricane Hawker fighter planes for the British government, Elsie, as Chief Engineer, was put in charge of the operation. She re-designed components of the plane, oversaw the design and manufacture of the tools needed for production, and supervised a staff of more than four thousand people. She also developed a winterized version of the plane, equipped with de-icers and skis for use in northern climates.
In 1943, Elsie opened her own office in Toronto where she worked as an electrical engineering consultant. Over the next several decades she provided services to both private companies and the government, establishing herself as a leading figure in the aeronautics industry.