The winner of this year’s Ontario Historical Society Alison Prentice Award was Crystal Sisson’s Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill from Second Story Press. For a change, I don’t feel behind the curve because I bought and read the book at this year’s Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities in May. MacGill, the first woman to graduate from the University of Toronto’s engineering program and to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan, became the chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry in Fort William, Ontario in 1938. The designer of the Maple Leaf II trainer, she was responsible during the Second World War for Can Car’s retooling and production of Hawker Hurricane fighters. Her anomalous position as a female chief engineer in what was still predominantly a male career garnered her media attention and a comic book in the True Comics War Heroes series.
Though her wartime career remains the best known part of her life story (as a quick look at these web pages at Wikipedia, the CBC, and the Women’s Engineering Society suggest), Sissons devotes as much or more space to her long postwar career. Her career as a consulting engineer lasted for more than thirty-five years, existing alongside an increasingly prominent and extensive commitment to public service with the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and a slew of other engineering and feminist organizations and causes.
Though her senior position at Can Car was unusual, wartime aviation production brought a large number of women in to jobs on the the shop floor at the Fort William plant. Back in the 1990s, the Canadian National Film Board did a documentary, Rosies of the North (streaming online at the NFB website) on Elsie MacGill’s career and their experiences working at the plant. Happily, they asked some of their interviewees about their memories of MacGill. The answers are interesting, with a wide variety of favorable and less-so responses.
One of the virtues of Sisson’s Queen of the Hurricanes has to be that it pushes beyond the wartime legend to show the many areas in which Elsie MacGill was involved: not just aeronautics, business, engineering, and civic action, but also as her mother’s biographer (the book was entitled My Mother, the Judge). Obviously, there’s still more to be said about all the parts of MacGill remarkable career, but Queen of the Hurricanes does a great job covering many of them.