The Hall

Elizabeth "Elsie" MacGill 1905–1980

My presence in the University of Toronto's engineering classes in 1923 certainly turned a few heads. One professor, who was unaware that his large class of men had, for the first time, been invaded by a "lady", began his opening lecture using the common engineering terminology: male and female fittings, flat bastard file and bastard thread, to name a few of the least offensive terms. At the first hint of a double meaning the men in the class exploded in laughter and the poor professor was reduced to confusion and blushes. However, none of this was enough to stop me from continuing my education.

I was the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree in Canada, as well as the first woman in North America to hold a degree in aeronautical engineering. Although I held many important positions in the aeronautics industry, I am perhaps best known for my work during World War II. As chief engineer for the Canadian Car and Foundry Company I oversaw the production of the Hawker Hurricane in Canada, and I designed a series of modifications to equip the Hurricane for cold weather flying.

I was also the first woman aircraft designer in the world. My Maple Leaf trainer may still be the only plane ever to be completely designed by a woman. Although I never learned to fly myself, I accompanied the pilots on all test flights – even the dangerous first flight – of any aircraft I worked on. It was the best way to assess the aircraft's performance. Perhaps because of my mother, I never forgot, throughout my long career, that many women in Canada do not have access to the opportunities I enjoyed. I have received many engineering awards, but I hope I will also be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children.

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