Celebrating 2021 NYU Alumni Changemaker Isabel Ebel (’34)
The year 1934 saw several notable events occur: Henrik Dam discovered vitamin K, physicians performed the first successful cornea transplant, televisions with cathode ray tubes were manufactured for the first time, and a Belgian information expert named Paul Otlet had the idea of developing and distributing a catalog and classification system for all of human knowledge — presaging the internet.
Our School had its own history-making milestone: that year, the previously all-male University Heights campus graduated its first woman aeronautical engineer: Isabel C. Ebel.
Before entering NYU, Ebel had earned an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT — making her, quite literally, the first woman aeronautical engineer in the country. She had struggled to find a job, however, despite her solid background, and hoped further education might help.
Setting her sights on what was then called the Guggenheim School of Aeronautical Engineering, in the University Heights section of the Bronx, she was rejected five times, before an influential friend intervened. Groundbreaking aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to pilot a plane across the Atlantic, was incensed to learn that the School was refusing to admit Ebel, who had recently charted a transcontinental Brooklyn-to-Los Angeles flight for her. With Earhart’s vocal backing, Ebel was admitted in 1933 as the sole woman among 3,000 men on the University Heights campus.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone of her tenacity and drive, Ebel excelled in her program. Her thesis project involved designing an aircraft that could reach speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. Several news stories were written about her during her time there, and in many, she is pictured holding a wing she had built. (She was quick, however, to point out that she was not the first woman to design a plane: “I don’t pretend to be blazing any trail as a girl designer,” she told one reporter. “Katherine Wright, the sister of the Wright brothers, helped to design the world’s first airplane.”)
Articles about her tended to focus to a large extent on her physical appearance and manner, describing her as pretty, petite, or attractive and going into details about her long-lashed hazel eyes, delicate voice, giggle, and wisps of face-framing curls. Even when they focused on her accomplishments, journalists could take a decidedly condescending tone, such as one who asked if her “honeymoon-worthy plane design could mean wedding bells for her one day.” She reportedly responded, “Of course, the right man might come along. But with me it’s love me, love my airplane.”
Ebel realized that even with her advanced academic credentials, she might have a hard time finding work, and her predictions turned out to be true. It was not until 1939 that she was hired by Grumman, again thanks to Earhart’s support, and she later worked at an Air Force base in California until her retirement in 1974.
Ebel’s family, which includes nephew Rick Ebel, niece Sue Mehringer, and grand-niece Madison Mehringer, remember not just her aeronautic accomplishments but her skill at diving and swimming, her expertise as a marksman, and her deep love of animals. She was, they say, a force to be reckoned with. Still, while Ebel had ample confidence and belief in her abilities, she never considered herself a pioneering figure. “I can’t change the world,” she once told a Brooklyn Eagle interviewer.
On that score, she was decidedly wrong: By the time she graduated, 50 more women had been admitted to the University.