Elizabeth Muriel Gregory “Elsie” MacGill, (27 March 1905 – 4 November 1980), known as the “Queen of the Hurricanes”, was the world’s first female aircraft designer. She worked as an aeronautical engineer during the Second World War and did much to make Canada a powerhouse of aircraft construction during her years at Canadian Car and Foundry (CC&F) in Fort William, Ontario. After her work at CC&F she ran a successful consulting business. Between 1967–1970 she was a commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, published in 1970.
Early life and education
MacGill was born in Vancouver on 27 March 1905, daughter of James Henry MacGill, a prominent Vancouver lawyer, and Helen Gregory MacGill, British Columbia’s first woman judge. Her mother was an advocate of women’s suffrage and influenced her decision to study engineering. MacGill graduated from the University of Toronto in 1927, and was the first Canadian woman to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering.
Following graduation, she took a junior job with a firm in Pontiac, Michigan. While there, she began part-time graduate studies in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan, enrolling in the fall of 1927 in the full-time Master of Science in Engineering program to begin aircraft design work and conduct research and development in the University’s new aeronautics facilities. In 1929, she became the first woman in North America, and likely the world, to be awarded a masters degree in aeronautical engineering.
Contracting polio just before her graduation, MacGill was told that she would probably spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She refused to accept that possibility, however, and learned to walk supported by two strong metal canes. She wrote magazine articles about aircraft and flying to help finance her doctoral studies at MIT in Cambridge.
In 1934, she started work at Fairchild Aircraft’s operations in Montreal as an Assistant Engineer. In 1938, she was the first woman elected to corporate membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada.
Later that year she was hired as Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry (CC&F), becoming the first woman in the world to hold such a position. At CC&F she designed and tested a new training aircraft, the Maple Leaf Trainer II.
The Maple Leaf was designed and first built in CC&F’s Ft. William (now Thunder Bay) factories, where she had moved. Although the Maple Leaf II did not enter service with any Commonwealth forces, ten (two were completed, but eight had to be assembled in Mexico) were sold to Mexico where its high-altitude performance was important given the many airfields from which it had to operate. Her role in the company changed when the factory was selected to build the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF). The factory quickly expanded from about 500 workers to 4,500 by war’s end, half of them women. For much of the war MacGill’s primary task was to streamline operations in the production line as the factories rapidly expanded. MacGill was also responsible for designing solutions to allow the aircraft to operate during the winter, introducing de-icing controls and a system for fitting skis for landing on snow.
By the time the production line shut down in 1943, CC&F had produced over 1,400 Hurricanes. In 1940 she wrote a paper on the experience, Factors affecting mass production of aeroplanes. Her role in this successful production run made her famous, even to the point of a comic book being published in the United States about her, using her then-famous nickname, “Queen of the Hurricanes”. Numerous popular stories were published about her in the media as well, reflecting the public’s fascination with this female engineer.
After Hurricane production ended, CC&F looked for new work and secured with a contract from the US Navy to build SB2C Helldivers. This production did not go nearly as smoothly, and a continual stream of minor changes from Curtiss-Wright (in turn demanded by the US Navy) meant that full-scale production took a long time to get started. In the midst of this project MacGill and the works manager, E. J. (Bill) Soulsby, were dismissed. It was initially rumored that Soulsby had been curt with a group of senior naval officers who had visited a week earlier, but it was later revealed the reason for the dismissals was that the two were having an affair.
MacGill and Soulsby were married in 1943 and moved to Toronto, where they set up an aeronautical consulting business. In 1946, she became the first woman to serve as Technical Advisor for ICAO, where she helped to draft International Air Worthiness regulations for the design and production of commercial aircraft. In 1947 she became the chairman of the United Nations Stress Analysis Committee, the first woman ever to chair a UN committee.
MacGill published a biography of her mother in 1955 entitled My Mother, the Judge: A Biography of Judge Helen Gregory MacGill. Her mother and grandmother’s work in the suffrage movement inspired her to spend an increasing amount of time dealing with women’s rights during the 1960s.
She served as the president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs from 1962 to 1964. In 1967 she was named to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada and co-authored the report published in 1970. She also filed a “Separate Statement” describing those of her opinions that differed from the majority on the Commission. For example, she wanted abortion removed from the entirety of the Criminal Code.
She was also a member of the Ontario Status of Women Committee, an affiliate of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. For this work she was given the Order of Canada in 1971.
After a short illness, MacGill died on 4 November 1980 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In noting her death, Shirley Allen, a Canadian member of the Ninety-Nines organization of women aviators described her: “She had a brilliant mind and was recognized as an outstanding Canadian woman. Neither gender nor disability prevented her from using her talents to serve her community and country.”
MacGill’s paper, Factors Affecting the Mass Production of Aeroplanes, won the Gzowski Medal from the Engineering Institute of Canada in 1941. In March 1953 the American Society of Women Engineers made her an honorary member and named her “Woman Engineer of the Year,” the first time that the Award had gone out of the United States. She was awarded the Centennial Medal by the Canadian government in 1967, the Ninety-Nines awarded her the Amelia Earhart Medal in 1975, and in 1979 the Ontario Association of Professional Engineers presented her with their gold medal. In 1983 she was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 1992 she was a founding inductee in the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in Ottawa.