Elsie MacGill is often cited as the first woman in the world to qualify as a professional aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. In 1927 Elsie was the first woman in Canada to receive a degree in electrical engineering. At the University of Michigan in 1929, she became the first woman anywhere to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. The same year, she contracted polio which left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Early in World War II, Elsie was appointed Chief Aeronautical Engineer for the Canadian Car and Foundry Plant in Fort William, Ontario, where the Hawker Hurricanes were built for the Allied forces overseas. Elsie promoted mass production techniques for the aviation industry, modified the Hurricane for winter use, and established standards for test pilot reporting. She was also the first woman to serve as Chair of a United Nations aviation technical committee; in that capacity she led the drafting of the first airworthiness regulations for the new International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Later in life she became an activist for women’s rights, and a mentor for women in aviation and engineering. She died in 1980.