Photo by:
ELSIE GREGORY MACGILL was Canada’s first practicing woman engineer and the first female aircraft designer in the world. She graduated with a BSC in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto (1927) completing her Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Michigan in 1929. Traditionally, Engineering was a male vocation, Elsie MacGill opened many doors and opportunities for women in this area of aviation in the years to come. She never actually piloted a plane, but acquired hundreds of hours on all test flights and stress analysis on proto-type aircraft in her work designing primary trainer aircraft and their subsequent production in WWII.

She was the daughter of James Henry MacGill, who practised law in Vancouver for over forty years and Judge Helen Gregory MacGill, who was the first woman jurist in B.C.and Judge of the Juvenile Court in Vancouver for twenty-two years. Elsie definitely inherited her mother’s pioneering spirit as her career developed.

While studying at the University of Michigan, she was stricken with acute infectious myelitis, a form of polio.

She wrote her final exams for her Master’s degree from a hospital bed. She spent a long time in a wheelchair, doing work on aeronautical design and articles on aviation. She recovered sufficiently to walk again with the aid of a cane, continuing her post-graduate work in Boston.

“Since that time, Dr. MacGill has held several interesting and important positions. For a time she was Assistant Engineer at Fairchild Aircraft Limited in Montreal. Here she did the stress analysis for the first all-metal prototype aircraft. In 1938, she was the first woman elected to corporate membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada. Around this time, she also changed her job to become the Chief Aeronautical Engineer for Canada Car and Foundry Company Limited in Montreal. Her great achievement here was to design a special duty trainer for use in Mexico. The result was the Maple Leaf Trainer II in which she flew as an observer on all its test flights. It was built at Fort William, (Thunder Bay) Ontario. Within only 8 months from the time the design was begun, the aircraft received its Certificate of Airworthiness, Aerobatic Category.”

During WW II Dr. MacGill was put in charge of all engineering work in connection with the production by Canada Car and Foundry Co. Ltd. of the famous Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for the British Government. She was also responsible for the development of fitting skis and de-icing controls for winter operation. All test flights were carried out under her direction. She was then responsible for the production of Curtis-Wright Helldivers for the United States Navy. She was the first woman to serve as Technical Advisor for ICAO and later was Chairman of the Stress Analysis Committee of this part of the United Nations.

In 1943, she set up her own business in Toronto, opening a consulting office in aeronautical engineering and in that year she married an aircraft associate, E.J. (Bill) Soulsby, Assistant General Manager of Victory Aircraft Ltd. In 1946, she was 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 was Chairman of the Stress Analysis Committee of this part of the United Nations. A unique honour for Canada and for herself, she was the first and only woman at that time to have chaired such a Committee.

In March 1953, the American Society of Women Engineers made her an honorary member with a medal and names her “Woman Engineer of the Year,” in recognition of her meritorious contribution to aeronautical engineering. It was the first time that the Award had gone out of the United States.

Her many honours include:

  • The Order of Canada (O.C.) in 1971
  • The Gold Medal of the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario (1979)
  • The Engineering Institute of Canada,
  • Julian C. Smith Memorial Medal in 1973
  • The 99s International Amelia Earhart Medal in 1975
  • Four Universities conferred Honorary Doctorates on her: Toronto (1973), Windsor (1976, Queens (1978) and York (1978)
  • Induction into the Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983
  • She devoted time and energy to women’s organizations, serving as national president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs from 1962 to 1964. In 1967, she was named a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. A founding member of the National Action Committee, she was involved in all its activities until her death. Dr. MacGill was the author of “My Mother the Judge,” and many scientific papers.

She had a brilliant mind and was recognized as an outstanding Canadian woman. Neither gender or disability prevented her from using her talents to serve her community and country.

Dr. Elsie Gregory MacGill died at the age of 75 in a car accident at Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 4, 1980. A Memorial Foundation was established in her name to support further research and study in the subjects most vital to her.

In 2009, a “Elsie MacGill Northern Lights” award was created to honour the memory of this remarkable woman.

Leave a Reply