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Wilson, Elmina T.

Published onNov 08, 2021
Wilson, Elmina T.

(September 29, 1870 — June 2, 1918)

Quick Facts

Elmina Wilson became the first female graduate of Iowa State’s civil engineering department (1892). She collaborated with her mentor, Anson Marston, on an Iowa State landmark, the 168-foot-tall Marston water tower.


Elmina T. Wilson was born on September 29, 1870 in Harper, IA to John and Olive (Eaton) Wilson. Elmina grew up as part of a large family, with an older brother, Warren, three older sisters, Fannie, Olive May, and Anna, and one younger sister, Alda; in addition to all her siblings, Elmina’s paternal grandparents, John and Jane Wilson, lived on a nearby homestead in Keokuk County. Both her parents and grandparents were incredibly supportive of educational endeavors, so it is no wonder that several of the Wilson children enrolled at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University).

Once at Iowa State College, Elmina channeled her life-long love of mathematics into a degree in Civil Engineering. During her summers off, Elmina took advantage of further educational opportunities, with classes at both Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University. She also collaborated with her mentor, Anson Marston, on an Iowa State landmark, the 168-foot-tall Marston water tower, which was the first raised steel water tower constructed west of the Mississippi River. After graduating with with her B.S.C.E. in 1892, Elmina went on to attain her masters degree, in Civil Engineering in 1894, making her the first woman in the country to receive her M.S.C.E.

After graduating with her masters degree, Elmina was invited to stay on as a civil engineering instructor at Iowa State College, where she was eventually promoted to the position of associate professor. She spent the next ten years teaching alongside her mentor, Marston during the fall and spring semesters, and spent her summers working with engineering firms in Chicago, such as the Jennett Bridge and Iron Company and architectural firm Patton and Miller.

In 1903, her younger sister Alda convinced Elmina to take on a new adventure. The sisters spent the two years exploring Europe by bicycle, where they explored many of Europe’s engineering and architectural wonders. Despite encouragement from her colleagues at Iowa State, Elmina chose not return to her teaching position at Iowa State and instead opted to pursue a career as an engineer in New York City. She took a position with the James E. Brooks Company, which focused primarily on bridge and other structural projects, but had recently expanded into a full service company for all sorts of structural engineering. Elmina’s first undertaking with the Brooks Company was travel to a steel works company in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where she worked in the shop sketching out the necessary steel parts and estimating the thousands of pounds of steel needed for any given project.

After several years with the Brooks Company, Elmina accepted a position with the Purdy and Henderson firm in 1907. Purdy and Henderson was the leading engineering firm in the country at the time when it came to designing skyscrapers, so this new position gave Elmina the opportunity to work on several historic New York City landmarks, most notably the iconic Flatiron Building in Manhattan.

When Elmina was not working on building her civil engineering portfolio, she dedicated her time to other scholarly pursuits and intellectual groups. Both Elmina and Alda were heavily involved with the Pi Beta Phi fraternity during their time at Iowa State, and Elmina continued to serve as the president of the New York City alumnae club. Elmina also filled her time writing informational architectural pieces that spoke to her roots. One of her most widely distributed articles, Modern Conveniences for the Farm Home, provided information for rural families on ways in which they modernize the home and improve overall sanitation. She also wrote several articles encouraging women to pursue careers in engineering. In a 1919 article for Pi Beta Phi, Elmina acknowledged that although, “disagreeable incidents such as running up against policies like ‘neither minorities or women will be considered for certain technical positions’ in certain offices are likely to occur,” and that in order to succeed a young woman would need to rely, “upon herself; upon her ability to concentrate her thoughts on the subject at hand, and to gather up afresh the products of the classic past and mold them into something specifically modern; upon her devotion, tact, ingenuity and self-sacrifice.”

Additionally, Elmina was heavily involved in the Women’s Suffrage movement. She acted as president of the Woman Suffrage Club for the 23rd Assembly District of the Manhattan Borough, which brought Elmina in contact with many influential women of her time, including Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and her fellow Iowa State College alum, Carrie Chapman Catt. Unfortunately, Elmina was never able to see their combined efforts come to fruition. She passed away on June 2, 1918, just a few months from her forty-eighth birthday, after a prolonged illness in New York City.

Selected Sources

Alda and Elmina Wilson Papers, RS 21/7/24, Archives of Women in Science and Engineering, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

Weingardt, Richard G. "Elmina and Alda Wilson." Leadership and Management in Egineering 10, no. 4 (2010): 192-96.

Weingardt, Richard G. "The First Lady of Structural Engineering." Civil Structural Engineer, February 19, 2014, 1-3.

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