This Week in History


Queen of the Hurricanes!

For the week of Monday March 25, 2013

On March 27, 1905, the first female aircraft designer, Elizabeth Muriel Gregory "Elsie" MacGill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her engineering career marks a significant stage in the acceptance of women within male-dominated professions. The aircrafts she produced helped protect Great Britain during the Second World War.

Elsie Gregory MacGill, 1927
© Library and Archives Canada / 1927 / a200745
In 1927, MacGill became the first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering, a discipline that had previously been open exclusively to men. After graduating, she went to work for the Austin Automobile Company in Pontiac, Michigan. When the company entered into airplane manufacturing, she enrolled in aeronautics at the University of Michigan. Although she contracted polio near the end of her studies, MacGill wrote her final exams from her hospital bed and passed with flying colours!

Her impressive work caught the attention of the Canadian Car and Foundry Company (Can-Car). She became their chief engineer in 1938 and was asked to design the Maple Leaf Trainer II. This was the first aircraft designed by a woman. On the eve of the Second World War, England commissioned Can-Car to produce the "Hawker Hurricane" fighter plane. As chief engineer, MacGill was responsible for its production. She improved aircraft manufacturing by introducing new mass-production techniques and, under her supervision, more than 1,400 Hurricanes were built at the plant. She also adapted the original Hurricane design so that the plane could be flown in winter conditions. From then on, MacGill was known as "Queen of the Hurricanes!"

Queen of the Hurricanes, a comic book detailing Elsie MacGill's life (1942)
© Library and Archives Canada / [ca. 1940] / MG31-K7 vol. 16, file 7
Often alone in a male-dominated profession, MacGill was an active member of the Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. She advocated for women's rights as a Commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women from 1967-1970 where she promoted equality in the workplace, access to birth control, and amendments to Canadian laws that would increase women's financial independence.

Elizabeth Muriel Gregory "Elsie" MacGill died on November 4, 1980 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 75. An influential figure in the field of aeronautical engineering and a strong women's rights activist, MacGill was designated a national historic person in 2007. She was also inducted into the Order of Canada in 1971, into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame in the 1980s, and into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in the 1990s.

To read about Elsie's mother and women's rights advocate, Helen Gregory MacGill, please visit British Columbia's First Female Judge. To read about other remarkable women in scientific fields, please read Women Doctors, A Pioneer of Women's University Education, The Rewarding Life of Dorothy Dworkin, and Harriet Brooks: A Woman of Science in the This Week in History archives.  

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