New Heritage Minute Highlights the World’s First Female Aeronautical Engineer
TORONTO – October 1, 2020 – In 1938, the 33-year-old Elsie MacGill accepted a post as chief aeronautical engineer at the Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car) factory in what is now Thunder Bay, Ontario. During the Second World War, demands for allied aircrafts were mounting, and MacGill’s first duty was to retrofit the old boxcar factory to mass-produce war planes. Throughout her time at Can Car, MacGill oversaw the production of over 1400 Hawker Hurricane aircrafts, one of the main fighters flown by Canadian and Allied airmen in the Battle of Britain, earning her the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes.” A new Heritage Minute by Historica Canada – the 95th in the collection – highlights the groundbreaking achievements of MacGill, who made a career of serving her country – and shattering glass ceilings.
In 1923, MacGill became one of the first women admitted to the engineering program at the University of Toronto. Her later completion of her master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1929, at the age of 24, effectively made her the world’s first female aeronautical engineer. Shortly after completing her masters, MacGill contracted polio. The illness affected her ability to walk for the rest of her life, but this did not deter her from work. In 1938, she designed the Maple Leaf Trainer II aircraft, the first aircraft designed and produced by a woman.
Although she rejected the media’s desire to label her a “woman engineer,” Elsie spent her life and career dedicated to advancing feminism in Canada. Her mother, Helen Gregory MacGill – British Columbia’s first female judge – set the example for her daughter to advocate for equal rights in the workplace and for reproductive rights. In 1967, MacGill became commissioner of the newly-founded Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.
“Elsie MacGill regarded challenges that others considered insurmountable to be nothing more than new obstacles to overcome,” said Anthony Wilson-Smith, President and CEO of Historica Canada. “This new Heritage Minute pays tribute to someone who spent much of her life in the service of our country – and in the ways she did so, made an impact that continues to resonate today.”
The “Elsie MacGill” Heritage Minute can be shared/embedded through this link.
Find more information about Elsie MacGill on The Canadian Encyclopedia.
This Heritage Minute was produced by Historica Canada and Point Blank Creative and filmed in Vancouver, BC. It was written by Point Blank Creative and directed by Scooter Corkle (Vancouver Asahi Heritage Minute). Historica Canada consulted with Erin Gregory, Curator (Acting) at Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Dr. Crystal Sissons, historian and author (Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill), and Richard Bourgeois-Doyle, science writer, historian and author (Her Daughter the Engineer: The Life of Elsie Gregory MacGill). Donna Strickland, professor and recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, provides the end narration.
The Heritage Minutes are made possible through funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage. The “Elsie MacGill” Heritage Minute was additionally supported through the Rideau Hall Foundation, with in-kind production equipment support provided by SIM International.
Historica Canada offers programs that you can use to explore, learn, and reflect on our history, and what it means to be Canadian.