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The Search for Maude Elsa Gardner ­
By Mark Martel
Writing about Maude Elsa Gardner’s career in navigating through libraries of technical information has been a bibliographic detective story in itself. Scattered records at first held only hints and snippets of information. We first considered profiling Gardner as a Dayton innovator based on the solitary fact that she had become the first woman admitted as a full member of the Engineers Club of Dayton in 1936.

There had to be more to the story, reasons why a decidedly male-only club relented and granted her membership. Had it been simply due to declining membership in the depths of the Great Depression? Or were there more substantial reasons based on her merits?

Initial research turned up clues. A 2005 posthumous award from the City of Dayton indicated she had been an aeronautical engineer at Wright Field from 1936-1941. Local historian Curt Dalton shared a 1942 news clipping that placed her engineering origins in WWI and followed her career up to a move to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy.

Tom Crouch, Senior Curator in Aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution, revealed another of Gardner’s achievements. “It so happens that [Maude] Elsa Gardner was also the first woman admitted to membership in the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, the professional organization for engineers and scientists in aeronautics [which evolved into] today's AIAA.”

Crouch pointed us to more leads. Dayton newspapers noted her membership in other engineering societies, and there were more tidbits in Crouch’s own book, Rocketeers and Gentlemen Engineers: A History of the AIAA and What Came Before.

Searching online brought more details, if not yet the big picture. The book Her daughter the engineer: the life of Elsie Gregory MacGill‬ mentioned Gardner’s undefined “physical lameness,” her work as an editor in the aeronautics industry, and her mastery of several languages. Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers and the Smithsonian’s United States Women in Aviation series each gave her a few paragraphs. The Women of M.I.T., 1871 to 1941: Who They Were, What They Achieved helped piece together her academic career. The different schools had little detail on their alumnus but each new source helped confirm or discredit other details.

Using US Census records, genealogist Jenny Hawran put together snapshots of Gardner’s home life in 1900, 1910 and 1920 until Elsa Gardner moved out on her own.

More tantalizing clues came from the website. We traced siblings in hopes of finding living relatives. In California it looked for a time we had found someone but to date the trail is cold. Surprisingly, ancestors proved easier to trace than descendants.

The big breakthrough came weeks after writing for Gardner’s civilian personnel records, housed at the National Archives. Over one hundred crisp photocopied pages laid out her complete employment file for Uncle Sam. Now we had her full resume, job duties, major achievements, even her pay records. Best of all was a large, clear newspaper photograph of Gardner in 1939, taken at Dayton’s Wright Field.

Through that photo and between the lines of her records we started to see and hear Elsa Gardner again, in her own words.

We welcome further news about Elsa Gardner. Wiser heads may be able to pull more significance from the information located so far. And there are still untried leads at the government sites where she worked.

Mark Martel and Kate Hagenbuch