Elmina Wilson was the first woman to receive a four-year civil engineering degree (BSCE) from Iowa State University (ISU). Even though she was not the first woman in America to receive a civil engineering degree, she was definitely the first one to complete her master’s in the same field and embark on an engineering career. Her younger sister Alda also followed in her footsteps to complete her degree in civil engineering from the same university. The daughter of successful farmers, Elmina along with her other siblings was always encouraged to pursue education. She grew up during a vibrant period in the country’s history, witnessing the completion of the historic St. Louis Bridge in 1874 and of Chicago’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, in 1885. These incidents are believed to have influenced her decision to study civil engineering, a field that was thought unsuitable for young girls in the 19th century. With the whole-hearted support of her family, Elmina completed her university education and established herself as a successful career woman—a rarity for women of her times. She had begun working as a student, spending summers in architectural and engineering companies in Chicago and eventually became a full-time college professor of civil engineering.
Childhood & Early Life
Elmina Wilson was born on September 29, 1870 to John C. and Olive (Eaton) Wilson, as one of their seven children. Both her parents descended from Scottish immigrants.
The Wilsons were very family oriented and the children had close relations with their grandparents. The family also believed in the value of education and encouraged all their children—including the daughters—to study as much as possible.
Elmina grew up in a period that was marked by engineering and architectural achievements in the American society. She witnessed the completion of the historic St. Louis Bridge in 1874 and of Chicago’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, in 1885, among others.
From an early age she was interested in mathematics and eventually developed a fascination with bridges, skyscrapers, and towers. Studying engineering seemed to be the most natural choice for the young girl.
She enrolled at the Iowa State University (ISU) where the dean of engineering, Anson Marston, a man of progressive values became her mentor. She successfully completed her four-year civil engineering degree (BSCE) in 1892 under his guidance.
She proceeded to complete her master's degree in 1894. During her years at the university, she worked in summers for architectural and engineering companies in Chicago. She also took courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and advanced engineering courses at Cornell University.
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After completing her studies, Elmina Wilson was appointed an engineering instructor at the ISU, and rose through the ranks to eventually become an associate professor. She took a sabbatical in between to study architectural and engineering works in Europe with her younger sister Alda who was also an engineering graduate.
In addition to her teaching career, she also worked with engineering and architectural firms, including a stint as a structural engineer for Purdy and Henderson, then the country's leading engineering designer of skyscrapers. One of the major projects she worked on was the historic Flatiron Building in Manhattan.
Elmina’s father John passed away in 1912. Following this, she went to work as a structural engineer for John S. Browne, consulting engineers. She collaborated with Alda in 1916 to prepare the architectural and engineering drawings for the Teachers Cottage or Helmich House at the Arrowmont Arts and Crafts School in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The building is today listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Wilson sisters were also actively involved with groups engaged in promoting women’s rights and were long-time members of local women’s rights groups like the College Equal Suffrage League, Woman Suffrage Party, and Woman’s Political Union.
Elmina served as president of the Woman Suffrage Club of the 23rd Assembly District, Manhattan Borough, and became acquainted with the prominent supporters of the women’s suffrage movement like Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
A prolific writer, she penned several articles and papers on modernization of rural home designs and improvement of sanitation conditions on farms. Her most popular piece of writing was ‘Modern Conveniences for the Farm Home’.
Elmina Wilson was the first woman to receive a Bachelor of civil engineering degree at Iowa State College, and the first one to complete her master’s degree in the field. Known as the "first lady of structural engineering”, she collaborated with Marston to build the 168-foot-tall Ames, Iowa, water tower, the first raised steel tower west of the Mississippi.
Personal Life & Legacy
Elmina Wilson never married; she dedicated her entire life to her profession. She remained close to her siblings throughout life and loved to travel and sketch in her leisure time. She also enjoyed painting and playing tennis.
She died after a prolonged illness on June 2, 1918, just months short of her 48th birthday, leaving behind a rich legacy of engineering achievements..