Mary Thelma Miller (BS 33)

The first woman to earn a B.S. in civil engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Mary Thelma Miller


The following excerpt is from an article that appeared in the Decatur Daily Review newspaper in 1933, highlighting Mary Thelma Miller, the first woman undergraduate to earn her degree (BS 33) from the department of civil engineering.

(Text & illustration credit:  Herald & Review/



Decatur Girl U. of I.’s First Woman Engineer
Her First Job a Dog House 

By Carmen Weir, Illinois Magazine Staff 

Because she is happiest when out of doors and enjoys most the freedom of a man’s world, Mary Thelma Miller, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Miller, 1704 North Morgan Street, Decatur, will be the first co-ed to graduate from the department of civil engineering at the University of Illinois. 

To design and supervise the building of tall, graceful office structures, rugged warehouses, sweeping suspension bridges, steel railroad bridges and concrete highway bridges is an ambition that has possessed her from childhood. 

As a little girl she played indifferently with her dolls and wielded with little enthusiasm a needle to make them sketchy doll dresses. Let the building of a neighborhood “clubhouse” offer itself, however, and she was at once in the midst of the activities wielding her hammer and nails with zest and skill. 

On the street where Miss Miller played as a child, heavy rains frequently caused the sewer to overflow and created along the gutter a rushing stream. Here Mary Thelma built countless dams and constructed fragile little bridges that fairies might have crossed. [...] All that remains of her early efforts is the old dog house where her dog “Ritzy” still maintains her dignified residence.

“Ritzy’s house was really the first building that I ever designed,” said Miss Miller. “I sat up nights drawing the plans and following the specifications and buildings codes of my own dictation. The house is eight by three. I used four different kinds of shingles to cover the boards. Ritzy loves it. At night she sleeps inside and when the sun shines she jumps to the roof and it becomes her solarium.” 

To pay for the asbestos shingles that form part of the splendor of the dog house, Mary Thelma ran countless errands in the neighborhood; she sold hundreds of magazines to customers who soon became regular patrons. Very early she learned to earn the things that she wanted. 

It has been so with her university education. While other co-eds were going to dances and parties, Mary Thelma was serving thick steaks and French fries to hungry traveling men and other patrons of the restaurants where she found work. […]
The other 62 candidates for diplomas in the civil engineering department this June are all men. They have long since ceased to regard Miss Miller as a curiosity. “When I first came in to their classes, they thought I had made a mistake and waited politely for me to leave,” said the co-ed. “But they finally learned that I was there to stay and now they take me for granted.”