First female engineering school graduate dies, leaves legacy that reaches to space

Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of NASA

Marjorie Townsend, the University's first female student to graduate from its engineering school, died last month at the age of 85. Townsend went on to become the first woman to manage a U.S. spacecraft launch.

The first female engineering student to graduate from GW died last month, leaving behind a legacy that inspired other female engineers to follow in her footsteps.

Marjorie Townsend, died April 4 in a D.C. hospital, The Washington Post reported publicly for the first time last week. Townsend’s cause of death has yet to be determined, the Post reported. She was 85 at the time of her death.

She enrolled in GW when she was 15, and received her engineering degree in 1951, making her the first woman to graduate from the school since it opened in 1884. After graduating, she went on to become the first woman to manage a U.S. spacecraft launch.

“The thought seems to lurk in people’s minds that women go into a man’s field to catch a husband,” she told the Post in 1957. “In fact, there was a wager on the line when I went to school that I would get married and never graduate.”

David Dolling, the dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said Townsend’s accomplishments should act as a source of empowerment for female engineers.

“Mrs. Townsend was an exceptionally talented engineer, whose pioneering spirit and example still can serve as an inspiration to the many women now studying engineering at SEAS,” Dolling said in an email. “We’re very proud that the first female engineer to graduate from SEAS went on to achieve such success in her career, and we’re grateful that she helped pave the way for future generations of female engineers.”

Townsend spent her career as an electrical engineer with NASA. In 1970, she oversaw the launch of the first X-ray astronomy satellite as part of a U.S.–Italy partnership, which later quadrupled the number of known X-ray sources, the Post reported. X-ray astronomy satellites detect the amount of X-ray emissions from astronomical objects like asteroids.

She led a varied career at NASA, managing several different projects before retiring in 1980. Townsend also contributed to the U.S.–Italian space partnership in 1972 and was knighted by the Italian Republic Order for her work on the project.

Townsend’s family did not immediately return a request for comment. She leaves behind four sons, 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, the Post reported.

Charles Garris, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee and a mechanical engineering professor, said Townsend was “an amazingly accomplished person” in her field.

“She really made an impact on the engineering profession,” he said. “[GW] had a very positive environment for women. That’s not always true for engineering programs, especially outside of the D.C. area.”

The school’s undergraduate population is currently 38 percent female, according to the Office of Institutional Research. Between 18 percent and 20 percent of all engineering students in the U.S. are women, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Overall, GW is more than 56 percent female.

Shelly Heller, a computer science professor, said female engineers tend to be more collaborative and look at situations through a more holistic lens.

“When a woman gets into a car, there’s no place for her to put her purse,” she said. “But if a woman was part of the engineering team, there would be a place for her purse rather than throwing it on the floor in the backseat.”

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