Women’s History Month: Civil Engineers Alda and Elmina Wilson

Alda and Elmina Wilson were sisters and Iowa natives who held the distinction of being the first female graduates from Iowa State‘s Civil Engineering program. Neither was the first woman in the United States to formally study Civil Engineering – that honor belongs to Elizabeth Bragg of California. Nevertheless, Elmina was the first woman in the country to earn a master’s degree in Civil Engineering, and she and her sister were also the first women to earn their living as successful full-time professionals in the field.

Elmina Wilson was born on September 29th, 1870 and Alda Wilson on September 20th, 1873. They lived in Harper, Keokuk County Iowa with their parents, John Chesney and Olive Eaton Wilson and six older siblings. Both their parents and grandparents were apparently very progressive and encouraged pursuit of higher education. It is unclear whether all of the older children did so (though one sister named Olive studied Agriculture at Iowa State before marrying). But Elmina, at least, seems to have settled on her career choice early in life. In a 1905 interview with the New York Sun, she mentions her love of mathematics and surveying as motivational factors, as well as of the necessity of having a degree to teach. She also speaks about having spent time doing railway field work as a teen, “walking the ties for miles, carrying transit and chain, whenever a fence crossed the path of the surveying party of which I was a member, the men went over it, but, of course, I went under.”

Elmina earned her B.S. in Civil Engineering from Iowa State in 1892.

Elmina Wilson at her 1892 graduation from ISU with a B.S. in Civil Engineering (University Photographs, RS# 21/07)

Elmina Wilson at her 1892 graduation from ISU with a B.S. in Civil Engineering (University Photographs, RS 21/07)

Alda soon followed in her footsteps, earning her B.S. in 1894, the same year Elmina made history by graduating with an M.S. and becoming the first female instructor in the department. During their time in school, both sisters were members of Pi Beta Phi, and both supplemented their ISU coursework with practical summer internships for various architectural and engineering firms in Chicago. Elmina also took advanced courses at Cornell, and Alma completed a masters at MIT, after which she took a job in Chicago, where she worked until 1904.

Elmina’s time as an instructor at ISU spanned over a decade post-graduation. She worked as an Assistant of Civil Engineering from 1892-1897, as an Instructor of Civil Engineering from 1898-1902, and an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering from 1902-1904. 

1894 Bomb yearbook, page 54. Elmina is listed as a department instructor even before she had officially graduated with her masters', as she taught while pursuing her graduate degree.

1894 Bomb yearbook, page 54. Elmina is listed as a department instructor even before she had officially graduated with her M.S., as she taught while pursuing her graduate degree.

While an instructor at ISU, Elmina also periodically collaborated on design projects with her supervisor and mentor, Anson Marston, the head of the Civil Engineering department. Most notably, she contributed to designs of the Marston Water Tower, now on the National Register of Historical Places.

1899 Bomb yearbook, page 23. Faculty. Civil Engineering. "By hammer and hand, all arts do sand. Yet too low they build who build beneath the stars." When this department was first established in the early years of the College history, there being no adequate place in which to conduct such a course, the students were taught simply land surveying and leveling. To-day the whole upper story of Engineering Hall is devoted to the work of this department. This includes a large class room, drafting room, office and instrument room, and is supplied with instruments for ordinary field work, including transits, levels, compasses, plane tables and the like, besides a cement testing outfit and testing machines. The students test in the laboratory, building stones, paving brick and other materials used in the construction of buildings. There is also a hydraulic laboratory connected with the new water works which furnishes facilities for many kinds of experiments in the mechanics of the flow of water. The best preparation, to our mind, that an engineer can have is a thorough knowledge of the underlying principles of his profession, without attempting an application of these principles by the use of formulas or rules, unless the laws and theory on which these formulas are based and the means by which they are deduced are thoroughly understood. Prof. A. Marston has had charge of this department since the Spring of '92, and Miss Elmina Wilson is the assistant professor.

1899 Bomb yearbook, page 23. She has no portrait in the faculty section, but Elmina is listed as assistant professor directly under the department chair Anston Marston.

From 1903 to 1904, Elmina took a sabbatical from teaching to reunite with her sister Alda (who had been working for some time in Chicago) for a trip to Europe. The sisters took the opportunity to study and draw, as well as marvel at, great European architecture. Happily, the ISU University Archives collection of Alda and Elmina’s papers contains all of their sketchbooks and journals from this period.

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook page, pencil illustration of architecture from an aerial view, entitled "Vaulting of San. Francisco - Lower Church Assisi 3-8-1904" (RS#21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook page, entitled “Vaulting of San. Francisco – Lower Church Assisi 3-8-1904” (RS 21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook page, pencil illustration of architecture dissected with numerical dimensions of components, entitled "Gothi Stone Staircase Pecci Palace Siena. Mch.16 1904" (RS#21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook page, entitled “Gothi Stone Staircase Pecci Palace Siena. Mch.16 1904” (RS 21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook, 2 page spread, pencil illustration of architecture from an exterior view, entitled "Pompeii Dec. 5 1903" and Cave Dec 6th 1903" (RS#21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook, 2 page spread, entitled “Pompeii Dec. 5 1903″ and Cave Dec 6th 1903” (RS 21/7/24, folder 5)

Following their trip, the Wilson sisters decided to move to New York City together to pursue more hands-on work experience, as well as to become active in the movement for Women’s Suffrage. While there, Alda designed architecture, and Elmina first took a job with the James E. Brooks Company and then, several years later, with Purdy and Henderson. The latter company was associated with the era’s foremost innovators in engineering design and headed by a man nicknamed the “father of skyscrapers.” Among other projects she completed at P&H, Elmina is reported to have collaborated with another newly-minted female engineer, Marian Sarah Parker, on designs for the Flatiron Building.

Elmina’s life was cut tragically short in 1918 due to illness. She was 48 years old, childless, unmarried, and at the height of her career when she died. A 2010 article in the journal Leadership and Management in Engineering points out that she also just missed the passing of the 19th Amendment, for which she fought actively, by a mere two years.

Alda, however, lived a long and varied life. Despite having spent much of her career in her sister’s shadow, and despite having been deprived, by an accident of birth-order, the historical notoriety of being “first,” she continued to prove herself resourceful and innovative, even in the wake of her grief. She moved back to Iowa after Elmina’s death, only to find that the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) was suffering from a shortage of competent drafters, as most of the men who had previously been employed in the office had shipped overseas to fight World War I. So Alda became the superintendent of the first ever Department of Women Drafters in Ames.

1918 Report of the State Highway Commission, page 15, listing Alda Wilson as Superintendent of the Women's Drafting Department (RS# 21/7/24, folder 1)

1918 Report of the State Highway Commission, page 15 (RS 21/7/24, folder 1)

Shortly thereafter, having strengthened a friendship with fellow ISU graduate and women’s rights leader Carrie Chapman Catt, Alda became Catt’s personal secretary in addition to her other professional responsibilities. By the time her own death arrived in 1960, Alda, aged 87, had advanced to the powerful position of executive secretary and executor of Catt’s estate. It is thanks to her that many important documents related to the women’s rights movement from the early 20th century now reside at the Library of Congress.

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