Elmina Wilson was the first female to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree in civil engineering (BSCE) from Iowa State University (ISU). While she was not the first woman in America to earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, she was the first to earn a master’s degree in the same field and pursue an engineering career. Alda, her younger sister, also completed a degree in civil engineering at the same university. Elmina, the daughter of prosperous farmers, was always encouraged, along with her other siblings, to pursue education. She grew up during a period of rapid development in American history, witnessing the completion of the historic St. Louis Bridge in 1874 and 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 previously considered unsuitable for young females. Elmina completed her university education with the unwavering support of her family and established herself as a successful career woman—a rarity for women in her era. She began her career as a student, working summers in architectural and engineering firms in Chicago, and eventually became a full-time college civil engineering professor.
Childhood & Adolescence
Elmina Wilson was born on September 29, 1870, as one of seven children to John C. and Olive (Eaton) Wilson. Both of her parents are of Scottish ancestry.
The Wilsons were devoted to their family, and their grandchildren maintained close ties with their grandparents. Additionally, the family believed in the value of education and encouraged all of their children—including their daughters—to pursue higher education.
Elmina grew up in an era when engineering and architecture were celebrated in American society. She was present when the historic St. Louis Bridge was completed in 1874 and Chicago’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was completed in 1885, to name a few.
She was fascinated by mathematics from an early age and later developed an interest in bridges, skyscrapers, and towers. Engineering appeared to be the most natural course of study for the young girl.
She enrolled at Iowa State University (ISU), where she met her mentor, Anson Marston, the dean of engineering and a man of progressive values. Under his guidance, she earned a four-year bachelor’s degree in civil engineering (BSCE) in 1892.
In 1894, she earned her master’s degree. Throughout her university years, she worked summers for architectural and engineering firms in Chicago. She also studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University, where she took advanced engineering courses.
Career of Elmina
Elmina Wilson began her career at Iowa State University as an engineering instructor and quickly rose through the ranks to become an associate professor. Between the two, she took a sabbatical to study architectural and engineering works in Europe with her younger sister Alda, who was also a graduate of engineering.
Along with teaching, she worked for engineering and architectural firms, including a stint as a structural engineer for Purdy and Henderson, the country’s leading engineering designer of skyscrapers at the time. Among the significant projects on which she worked was Manhattan’s historic Flatiron Building.
John, Elmina’s father, died in 1912. Following this, she began working for John S. Browne, consulting engineers, as a structural engineer. In 1916, she collaborated with Alda on architectural and engineering drawings for the Teachers Cottage or Helmich House at Arrowmont Arts and Crafts School in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Today, the structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Wilson sisters were also active members of local women’s rights organizations such as the College Equal Suffrage League, Woman Suffrage Party, and Woman’s Political Union.
Elmina was president of the Woman Suffrage Club of the 23rd Assembly District in Manhattan Borough, where she met prominent women’s suffrage supporters such as Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
She was a prolific writer, penning numerous articles and papers on rural home modernization and farm sanitation. ‘Modern Conveniences for the Farm Home’ was her most popular piece of writing.
Significant Works of Elmina
Elmina Wilson was the first woman at Iowa State College to earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and the first to earn a master’s degree in the field. She was dubbed the “first lady of structural engineering” for her collaboration with Marston on the 168-foot-tall Ames, Iowa, water tower, the first raised steel structure west of the Mississippi.
Personal History and Legacies
Elmina Wilson was never married; her entire life was devoted to her profession. She remained close to her siblings throughout her life and spent her free time traveling and sketching. Additionally, she enjoyed painting and tennis.
She died on June 2, 1918, just months shy of her 48th birthday, after a protracted illness, leaving behind a rich legacy of engineering accomplishments.
Estimated Net Worth
Elmina Wilson’s net worth is unknown.