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New Heritage Minute highlights the world's first female aeronautical engineer: Vancouver's trailblazing Elsie MacGill

Kyei Gideon

Oct. 01, 2020

A new Heritage Minute pays tribute to an inspirational and groundbreaking Canadian from Vancouver who overcame numerous gender barriers and refused to let anything stop her.
Elsie MacGill, who was born in Vancouver in 1905, enrolled in applied science at UBC in 1921 before she become one of the first women admitted to the engineering program at the University of Toronto in 1923.
When she completed her master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1929, she became the world’s first female aeronautical engineer at the age of 24.
Unfortunately, after she was diagnosed with polio shortly thereafter, which permanently affected her ability to walk.
Ever undaunted, however, she didn't let that stop her from pursuing her career.
After recovering in Vancouver, she engineered a new aircraft—the Maple Leaf Trainer II. Although it never went into full production, it was the first aircraft designed and produced by a woman.
In addition, she was 33 years old when she accepted a post as a chief aeronautical engineer at the Canadian Car Foundry (known as Can Car) in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1938.
When demand for allied aircraft increased during the Second World War, MacGill’s first duty was to retrofit the old boxcar factory so that it could become a mass-production facility for war planes.
As she oversaw the production of over 1400 Hawker Hurricane aircrafts—which was one of the main planes flown by Canadian and Allied pilots in the Battle of Britain—she garnered the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes”.
Also in 1938, she became the first woman to be accepted as a member of the Engineering Institute of Canada.
A leading example for her feminist achievements was her own mother—Helen Gregory MacGill—who became B.C.’s first female judge, and Elsie became commissioner of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada in 1967.
Before her death at age 75 in 1980, she received numerous awards, including the Association of Professional Engineers Ontario’s gold medal, and she has been inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame (1983) the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame (1992), and the Women in Aviation International’s Pioneer Hall of Fame (2012).
Today (October 1), Historica Canada released the 95th Heritage Minute, which shines a spotlight on MacGill. Filmed in Vancouver, the Heritage Minute was written by Point Blank Creative, directed by Scooter Corkle, and produced by Historica Canada.
For more about MacGill, you can read an entry about her at the Canadian Encyclopedia website.
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