Famous Canadian Women in Science and Technology

Roberta Bondar (1945 -)

Research scientist in neurology and the first Canadian woman in space

Roberta Bondar was the first Canadian woman in space. She is also a distinguished researcher in the field of neurology and an avid photographer. Fascinated by the world of science since her youth, she dreamed of becoming an

astronaut. She has obtained undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate degrees from the University of Guelph (agricultural and zoology), the University of Western Ontario, the University of Toronto (neurobiology) and McMaster University (medicine). She did research at Tufts Medical Centre in Boston and at Toronto Western Hospital before becoming an Assistant Professor at McMaster University. In June 2009, Dr. Roberta Bondar will step down as the Chancellor of Trent University, after having served two consecutive terms.

In 1983, the National Research Council of Canada announced the formation of the Canadian space program. Bondar sent in her application and became one of six people, chosen from over four thousand applicants, who would be trained as one of Canada’s first astronauts. She was the only woman in the group, and as such, faced a great deal of scrutiny.

In 1990, Bondar was commissioned to be payload specialist with the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission, on board Space Shuttle Discovery. Two years later, she and the remaining crew members were part of the launch of Mission STS-42, on January 22, 1992. Over 8 days, she conducted several experiments and photographed the earth’s surface. Her experiences are described in her book Touching the Earth.

Also while working for NASA, Bondar headed an international space medicine research team. Her research team linked their findings on astronauts recovering from the microgravity of space to neurological illnesses, such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease. Her methods have been used in clinical studies at BI Deaconess Medical Center and at the University of New Mexico.

Bondar’s great love of photography and viewing the world from space inspired her to photograph all forty-one of Canada’s national parks. The results were gathered into a book and museum exhibit, entitled Passionate vision.

A shortlist of Bondar’s numerous awards include the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, the NASA Space Medal, twenty-two honorary degrees, and induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Recently, she was chosen as Canada’s first national ‘Biotechnology Champion’ and she was honoured as Canada’s national patron of UNESCOs International Year of Planet Earth.


Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill (Elsie) (1905-1980)

First woman to receive an Electrical Engineering degree in Canada and the first female aircraft designer in the world. She was also a consultant, author, commissioner and a strong advocate of women’s rights.

Elsie is associated with many “firsts”. While attending the University of Toronto, she became the first woman to receive an Electrical Engineering degree in Canada in 1927. As an employee of the Austin Automobile Company (Michigan), Elsie became interested in aeronautics. The Master’s degree she earned

Elizabeth (Elsie) MacGill

in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan made her the first woman to earn this distinction in 1929.

Also in 1929, Elsie contracted acute infantile myelitis, which is a form of polio. Although she was told that she would never walk again, she did let herself stop living. As she recovered, she wrote articles on aviation and later enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her determination paid off and she was able to walk again with the aid of two metal canes.

In 1934, she helped design the first all-metal aircraft built in Canada while she worked as an assistant aeronautical engineer for Fairchild Aircraft Limited in Québec. She specialized in stress analysis. The Canadian Car and Foundry Company (Can-Car) appointed Dr. MacGill as Chief Aeronautical Engineer in 1938. Pilots were trained on the Maple Leaf II Trainer, which was an aircraft that she designed and tested. She became the first female aircraft designer in the world.

Her best known work is probably the Hawker Hurricane fighter airplanes that were used during World War II during the Battle of Britain. Her designs adapted the Hurricane to fly in cold weather. Under her leadership, Can-Car built 1,451 Hawker Hurricanes between 1939 and 1943. Dr. MacGill was also responsible for all engineering work done on the Curtiss-Wright Helldiver fighters for the United States Navy.

Additional achievements of Dr. MacGill include being elected as the first woman corporate member of the Engineering Institute of Canada (1938), first female Technical Advisor to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization(1946), Chair of the Stress Analysis Committee (1946), President of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (1962 until 1964), she was appointed as one of the seven Commissioners on the newly-established Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1967). Interestingly, she filed a “Separate Statement” which described how her opinions differed from the majority on the Commission. For example, she wanted abortion removed from the entirety of the Criminal Code.

In 1943, Dr. MacGill married and moved to Toronto to start her own private consulting firm specializing in aeronautical engineering. In 1955, she published a book about her mother called My mother the judge: a biography of Judge Helen Gregory MacGill. Judge MacGill helped change legislation that resulted in the improvement of the lives of women and children. Some of Elsie’s many awards include: Gzowski Medal of the Engineering Institute of Canada (1941); Centennial Medal by the Government of Canada (1967); Order of Canada (1971); Gold Medal of the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario (1979). In the 1980’s she was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame and into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in the 1990’s. She was also the muse for a comic strip entitled “Queen of the Hurricanes: Elsie MacGill.”


Ursula Franklin (1921- )

Renowned researcher in the field of metallurgy and a humanitarian and feminist voice in the world of science.

ablaze online

Dr. Ursula Franklin was born in Munich, Germany in 1921 and began her career during World War II. She was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp as a young woman because of her Jewish ancestry. During the rest of the war, she repaired bombed buildings.

In 1948, she was awarded her PhD in experimental physics at the Technical University of Berlin and then emigrated to Canada in 1949. Franklin worked as a senior research scientist at the Ontario Research Foundation for 15 years. She was a specialist in the study of metals and alloys, and her work pioneered the

Dr. Ursula Franklin

development of the field of archaeometry. In the early 1960s, her techniques were used to investigate levels of strontium 90 (a radioactive substance present in fallout from nuclear weapons testing) in children’s teeth. Her findings were played an important role in the U.S. government’s discussions about stopping nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere.

Dr. Franklin joined the University of Toronto’s Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science in 1967. In 1984, she became the first woman there to be granted the title of University Professor, which is the highest honour given by the university. In addition to continuing to date copper, bronze, metal and ceramic prehistoric artifacts in Canada and elsewhere, she is actively involved in numerous humanitarian and feminist activities. Examples include publicizing her thoughts on how science and technology affect society, encouraging young women in science and advocating for peace and justice.

A core component of Franklin’s worldview comes from her own experiences with metals and alloys. The properties of an alloy are determined in part by its structure. Similarly, the structures of human affairs determine their social and political outcomes. She asserts that successful solutions to socio-political problems must address the structures that cause them.

In 1989, the Massey Lectures (spun from CBC Radio’s Ideas) were delivered by Dr. Franklin. These lectures, called “The Real World of Technology”, were an attempt to explore how science and technology shape and are shaped by our social demands. Franklin has argued that the technology developed since the Industrial Revolution, has helped transfer power and control into the hands of the increasingly few. She advocates that people become “citizen scientists” by acquiring a general knowledge of scientific and technical information in order to understand these complex structural issues and to protest when necessary.

Dr. Franklin’s work has been recognized the world over. She has been awarded honorary degrees from more than ten Canadian Universities and received a nomination as a Companion of the Order of Canada. The Toronto Board of Education named a new public school after her, the Ursula Franklin Academy, in 1995.


Women Engineering the Future -Calgary AB Oct 2-3/13


Women Engineering the Future  -Calgary AB Oct 2-3/13