Engineer of the Week No. 91: Minnie Elizabeth (Betty) Barclay Lindsay, BSc (9th October 1897- 11th January 1953)
On her 124th birthday we remember Scotswoman Betty Lindsay, who despite her mechanical engineering degree worked mainly as a civil engineer in Albania.
Elizabeth Lindsay was born in 1897 in China where her father, Edward John Lindsay was a banker. However, when she was only 3 years old the family returned to Scotland where her father soon died and she was sent to live with her grandparents near Elgin. When her mother, too, died in 1913, Elizabeth went to live with her uncle, Rev. Alex William Watt, at Evie in Orkney, which she regarded as her home address for the rest of her life. In 1921 she gained a BSc in mechanical engineering from the University of Edinburgh, and is believed to probably have been only the 2nd woman engineering graduate (after Elizabeth Georgeson in 1919). During her studies she was awarded a 2nd class certificate of merit in mechanical engineering.
From 1922-25 she worked as a civil engineer, as an Engineering Assistant for William Tawse Ltd, on the Aberdeen waterworks Reconstruction scheme. Tawse were a major contracting company, who also built the Cruachan dam, and which later became the Aberdeen Construction Group.
In 1926 The Woman Engineer reported: “Some time ago the WES was asked to find a woman engineer who would be prepared to join a Mission which was being organised by Lady Carnarvon to go to Albania in connection with an Anti-Malarial Mission. Miss E. Lindsay, one of our Scottish members, who has trained and worked as a Civil Engineer, volunteered for the post. The Mission consists of two women doctors, a nurse, a chauffeuse, and a woman engineer. Miss Lindsay arrived at the State Hospital, Valona, Albania, on March 21st, having stayed some time previously in Italy, receiving instruction in anti-malarial work. Her duties at present consist of organising and supervising the work of draining, ditching and filling in pits, etc., and in clipping for and examining mosquito larvae. She writes that the work is most interesting but progress is necessarily very slow.”
From 1926 to the outbreak of war in 1939, Elizabeth worked on anti-malarial civil engineering projects in various parts of Albania, funded by various charities and the government. She worked for Rockefeller Foundation Engineer, Frederick W. Knipe, and International Health Board ecologist, Dr Lewis W. Hackett, who were the leading malariologists of their day. Whilst Knipe was the foremost proponent of chemical spraying to prevent mosquitoes, Hackett advocated environmental controls and Elizabeth’s work with him at Durazzo, involve increasing the salt content of a slough, in which mosquitoes were breeding prolifically, by connecting the slough with the Adriatic Sea, until the salinity was increased to a point which eliminated all breeding. In 1935 Elizabeth’s work would have involved her in the project which dammed the Tirana River in Albania to divert its entire summer flow into an irrigation system, with a view to preventing mosquito breeding during the malaria season. The Rockefeller Foundation’s annual reports do not name her, as she was not directly employed by them, but her role is described as “drainage engineer” working with Hackett.
Much of the work was camping out in the field, surveying waterways, in what was then a very undeveloped nation. Conditions in the field would have been extremely basic and social attitudes towards women were probably very difficult. Nevertheless, she apparently thrived there, learnt the language fluently and made local friends.
On her return to the UK at the outbreak of the Second World War, Elizabeth put these skills to good use and became a technical translator in both Spanish and Albanian, for the Air Ministry. Rising to the level of Chief Translator, she remained there until her death in 1953. She was buried in Edinkillie, Morayshire, where her grandmother added her memorial to the family grave.