The World's First Female Aerospace Engineer - Elsie MacGill
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
Recently, TU Delft published a short history of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering that I wrote together with my colleagues Joris Melkert and Michiel Schuurman. During the research for this booklet, I also became curious about the first woman who gained a degree in aeronautical or aerospace engineering. As today is International Women's day, I thought this would be a good occasion to share my findings.
the Women of NASA by Lego in my study
[Photo: CC-BY-SA Gillian Saunders-Smits]
Heroes and Role Models
As a female aerospace engineer I am often asked if I see women such as Amelia Earhart or Amy Johnson as my heroes or role models. I have to confess they are not - not withstanding their great accomplishments - but both were pilots and not engineers. The same goes for the first female astronaut Valentina Tereshkova or the women of NASA who were recently immortalised as LEGO figurines, although each woman clearly competent and successful in her own right, none hold a degree in aeronautical or aerospace engineering. So who was the first? And what impact did she have?
Elsie MacGill [Public Domain]
Elsie MacGill (1905-1980)
A search of the World Wide Web quickly taught me that this fete already happened in 1929, only some 20 years after the first degree programmes in aeronautical engineering were established. The first woman to gain a degree in aeronautical engineering was Canadian Elsie MacGill. She graduated with a Master of Science in Aeronautics from the University of Michigan in 1929, having previously become the first woman to gain a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in Canada in 1923 and continued to study for her PhD at MIT from 1932-1934 [Source: Wikipedia].
Elsie MacGill in front of her Maple Leaf Trainer II with her future husband Bill Soulsby
[Public domain Canada Aviation Museum Library and Archives]
Aeronautical Engineer and Aircraft Designer
She started work as an assistant aeronautical engineer at Fairchild's aircraft in Canada and was hired as a Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry where she designed and tested the Maple Leaf Trainer II. In fact she was known to insist on taking part in test flights of aircraft [Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia]. Only 10 aircraft were ever built due to the outbreak of World War II, when the factory started to produce Hawker Hurricanes to aid the war effort which saw her in charge of streamlining the production of over 1,400 Hurricanes. This role made her famous and earned her the nickname: 'Queen of the Hurricanes'.
[Elsie MacGill portrayed in True Comics in 1942, Public Domain]
Equality and Women's Rights
MacGill achieved all this not only as a woman but also as a person with a disability, having contracted polio in 1927, which forced her to walk using two walking sticks. She went on to hold various international positions within aeronautics and throughout her career also published papers on her work in engineering. But her work extends beyond aeronautics, in later life she took up the issue of women's rights which she is being reported as valuing as much as her engineering career:
"I have received many engineering awards, but I hope I will also be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children."
Elsie MacGill died in 1980 and has been included in both the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame and the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. You can read more about her inspirational life in this online booklet by the Canadian Aviation and Space museum.
Who is my hero?
Again reflecting on the question about which woman is my role model, I have two answers: the first is my mum, who taught me to follow my dreams and continues to support my sister and me in the achievement of our dreams which resulted in both of us earning our PhD and working in STEM. But lately, I have also found my professional role model: Elsie MacGill, aerospace engineer, advocate for equality, and fighter of injustice.
Happy International Women's day, everyone!