History

Elmina Wilson

by Don Friedman on March 13, 2019


I happened across a link that led me to an article about Elmina Wilson at the website for the Iowa State University College of Engineering. I had never heard of her, but her bio is impressive. After getting her BS and MS in Civil Engineering (1892, 1894) at Iowa State, she then taught there for seven years, first as an instructor and then as an assistant professor. She then went to work at consulting firms, ending with Purdy & Henderson. At that firm, which was more or less the first structural engineering consultancy for buildings in the US, she worked on iconic New York skyscrapers including the Met Life Tower and the Municipal Building.*

That would be a great resume for any engineer of that era. The obvious follow-up to that observation is just how impressive it was for a woman circa 1900. Ms. Wilson was the first woman to graduate from Iowa State’s engineering program, the first woman to get a master’s in engineering in the country, and the first woman to be a full-time professor of engineering in the country. She must have been a truly remarkable individual to manage all that.

The picture above shows the Iowa State campus in 1913, about a decade after she left for the east. But her presence is still there: she worked on water tower structure left of center. Here’s a blow-up of it:



At 168 feet tall, it was her first practical experience with the framing of tall skeleton structures.

* As a side note, there’s an odd error in the ISU article. It says that the Whitehall Building Annex, which Ms. Wilson worked on, was “the tallest office building in New York at the time of its completion in 1910.” Since the Met Life Tower (an office building) was completed in 1909 and was the tallest building in the world until the Woolworth Building was constructed, that claim can be see to be wrong just by looking up one line on the page.

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