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Maude Elsa Gardner ­– Aeronautical engineer through two world wars

Page 2

By Mark Martel

In the early 1930s Gardner held a series of jobs as bibliographer, statistician, and civil engineering Project Examiner. She also held an ongoing side job for Aero Digest Magazine between 1930 to 1936 as a contributing editor. “Wrote the “Digest of Foreign Technical Literature” for each issue of the magazine. This consisted of abstracts of French, German, and Italian as well as English publications, selected because of their importance to aeronautical engineers. I also made an index of the magazine. This work was done at home and at the same time I was holding other positions listed below or attending engineering college.”

By 1930 Gardner boarded in Manhattan, at the now-historic Panhellenic Tower. It was safe and affordable housing for young single women who belonged to “national, Greek-letter sororities.”

After a year’s scholarship at M.I.T. to complete her engineering course work, Gardner found the opportunity to turn her Aero Digest side work into a fulltime career, though she was unable to finalize her degree. By comparison, six women received degrees from MIT in aeronautical engineering between 1925 and 1960.

At Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, Gardner became Assistant Technical Review Editor “and sole writer of the “Technical Data Digest,” a 40-to-50 page semi-monthly publication containing abstracts of articles or reports of French, German, or Italian, as well as English and American sources, and which I considered of interest to engineers at Wright Fld. It was distributed throughout the Air Corps as well as to other Government agencies. Without revision it was republished in the Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences. As a tribute to my work, the Institute Of the Aeronautical Sciences [IAS] made me its first woman member.”

The shared knowledge helped US military and commercial sectors keep up with the latest developments and stay in sync with one other.

Tom Crouch, Senior Curator in Aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution, noted that the IAS “had been opposed to women entering the organization since its founding in 1933. They had a membership category for pilots, but famously excluded Amelia Earhart. In the beginning they were quite the elitist group.”

Instead the IAS invited Elsa Gardner to join.

Her acceptance made the front page of the Dayton Daily News in 1939, which also noted her membership in the executive council of the International Women’s Engineering society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Society of American Military Engineers.

It may have helped that Gardner also wrote the “Index of Technical Orders & Technical Notes” of the Bureau of Aeronautics, 175 pages of 6-pt. type.  “I originated this and issue it twice a year.” Additionally, she wrote an index to the Bureau’s Manual. And finally, she started the Dayton branch of the IAS…at the largest US air base focused on aeronautical research. The Institute evolved into today's AIAA, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Gardner received commendations from the Chief of the Air Corps, then-Major General Hap Arnold. The letter hung framed in her apartment in downtown Dayton’s Biltmore Hotel. From there she rode the bus the six miles to the base or walked the single block from her apartment to the Engineers Club. Her five years in Dayton would prove her longest stretch away from the east coast and easier access to family.

Gardner had already joined the Engineers Club in 1936, the first woman admitted as a full member. (Chemical engineer and lawyer Gertrude Bucher had joined as a junior member in 1929.) But the reason for Gardner’s acceptance remains unknown.

Coming late to the fight, the US ended World War One ranked fourteenth in military aviation. But research and development at Dayton’s first military airfield helped move the US to first place, as chronicled in Mary Ann Johnson’s book McCook Field, 1917-1927. This was partly due to McCook personnel publishing their results and acting as a clearinghouse for information between the military and industry. When McCook closed, much of that work moved to the new Wright Field east of Dayton, where a decade later Elsa Gardner was to continue the work of summarizing and publishing the latest technical info in the field, with the addition of works published in Europe.

Writer Daniel Hoffman, who later served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1973–1974, was assigned as Gardner’s replacement in 1942. A description of his memoir Zone of the Interior notes,

“…he was given more responsibility than he has ever held since: directing the AAF Technical Data Digest, an abstracts journal that covered every phase of aeronautical research and development relevant to the Army Air Force. It was sent to air bases around the world, military contractors, and all Allied air attaches. This is a hitherto untold report of how the AAF retrieved and distributed essential technical data before the invention of computerized information processing. “

In March of 1941, with US involvement in World War Two imminent, Gardner applied to perform similar work for the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics.  Finally her two decades of higher education were officially recognized. “When I transferred from the U.S. Army Air Corps to the Navy Dept., I was rated an Assoc. Aeronautical Engineer on my education and experience record.” She was willing to be appointed anywhere inside or outside the US; she ended up in Washington D.C., closer to family. Her mother shared her apartment there at times.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy’s “ill-preparedness” had made Elsa Gardner literally sick to the stomach. Ignoring her doctor’s orders of bed rest for a stomach ulcer, she returned to duty immediately. Work was piled on and she did it “uncomplainingly… even though it meant hours and hours of overtime.

“Instead of going with an aircraft company which told me to name my own salary, or staying with the Air Corps as they wanted me to, I took the Navy, for Better or for Worse, and I intend to stick by it, (because I think it needs the work I can do)…” she quietly bragged. She was one of only two woman aeronautical engineers in the Navy.

Her salary as an Associate Aero Engineer was $3200—$200 more than her best pay up to that point, which she had earned a dozen years prior, before the Depression. The work was similar to her Air Corps duties. “Head, Indexing and Abstracting Unit with complete responsibility for the evaluation of engineering reports and technical publications covering all phases of aeronautical engineering and a Bureau authority on engg. reports and data. I am responsible for making detailed studies on any phase of aero. engg. research and development. Write TO-TN Index. Locate new sources of information. Compiles bibliographies.”

Months later a United Press profile of Gardner appeared in Pennsylvania’s Charleroi Mail, the Lowell, Massachusetts Sun and was syndicated to many other newspapers. (See transcript.) A second woman twenty years her junior is mentioned in the article as working toward her degree in aeronautical research. Once again wartime was creating new opportunities for women. But for Elsa Gardner, now nearing age 50, her career seemed to reach peak altitude, though it would maintain cruising speed for another two decades.

A 1948 letter from N.A.C.A., the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and forerunner of NASA, thanked her for publication of “Significant American and International Awards in Aviation.”

On a 1950 questionnaire modeled after an “American Men of Science” survey, Gardner summarized her occupational specialties: In Metallurgical Intelligence she had 30 years of limited experience. For R&D intelligence, 4 years of limited experience. In Aeronautical Research and Military Intelligence she listed 14 years with limited experience for research, but extensive experience for design, development, and/or testing. Under hobbies she felt she was very good at duplicate contract bridge and rated herself a fair violinist.

In 1955, MIT’s Aeronautical Engineering Library called on Gardner’s expertise when they requested two reports she had written. In a sense her alma mater was paying delayed tribute.

The 1950s also brought several Superior Accomplishment Awards, travel to several conferences and further step increases in pay. When the Navy reorganized in 1960 she found herself in the Bureau of Naval Weapons. But the end was near. At the end of October, 1962 Maude Elsa Gardner retired from her sickbed at Doctors Hospital, after 27 years of government service. Apparently she never recovered, for she died from cancer not four months later in February, 1963, at age 69.

Elsa Gardner is remembered in the various sources listed below, as well as in the many publications she authored. In 2005 Gardner received an award from the City of Dayton for her achievement as the first woman member of the IAS, which listed her as an aeronautical engineer at Wright Field from 1936-1941. Her Washington Post obituary includes mention of another letter of commendation—from King George V for her WWI service.


Partial list of publications
Aero Digest Magazine, “Digest of Foreign Technical Literature,” May 1930 - Jan 1936
Index of Technical Orders & Technical Notes of the Bureau of Aeronautics, 175 pages of 6-pt. type. I originated this and issue it twice a year (ca 1945)
Index to the BuAer Manual ca 1945

Jan 1936 to March 1941, Editor and sole writer of the “Technical Data Digest,” 40-to-50 page semi-monthly publication containing abstracts of articles or reports of French, German, or Italian, as well as English and American sources, and which I considered of interest to engineers at Wright Fld. It was distributed throughout the AirCorps as well as to other Government agencies. Without revision it was republished in the “Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences.”

TO-TN Index, Navy Dept., Bureau of Aeronautics, 1941-62
Significant American and International Awards in Aviation, Bureau of Aeronautics, Department of the Navy, Published about 1948, revised February 1954 (Maude Elsa Gardner presumed author)




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