Born in Iowa in 1904, Ellen studied nursing and worked as a registered nurse in San Francisco. During her free time, she took flying lessons and earned her pilot’s license. Ellen passed by the San Francisco office of Boeing Air Transport (now United Airlines) on her route to work and decided to inquire about a job. Although Ellen was a licensed pilot, pilot positions were not open to women. The manager, Steve Stimpson, offered her a position as a flight attendant (or stewardess, as they were referred to at the time). A German airline had recently pioneered the role of flight stewards to help serve food and care for passengers who became frightened or airsick.
Ellen convinced Steve Stimpson that nurses would be ideal candidates to work as flight stewardesses. With their medical backgrounds, nurses could better care for those who became airsick and would provide reassurance to help calm the public’s fear of flying. Ellen was hired as head stewardess in 1930, and she recruited seven other nurses for a three-month trial period. In addition to being registered nurses, the women had to be single, younger than 25 years old; weigh less than 115 pounds; and stand less than 5 feet, 4 inches tall. The height and weight restrictions existed due to commercial plane weight capacities, narrow aisles, and low ceilings. The flight stewardesses took tickets, served food, and cleaned the inside of the planes. They also screwed down loose seats, fueled the planes, and on occasion helped the pilots push the planes into hangars.
Ellen became the first flight stewardess to fly in May 1930, on a 20-hour flight from Oakland to Chicago with 13 stops. She served 14 passengers on this flight. Following the success of nurse flight stewardesses with Boeing Air Transport, other airlines began implementing Ellen’s system as well. Ellen worked as a flight stewardess for 18 months before an automobile accident forced her to step down. She went on to earn a bachelor’s in nursing from the University of Minnesota and continued working as a nurse. She became the supervisor of pediatrics at Milwaukee County Hospital in 1936.
During World War II, Ellen returned to the sky as a captain and flight nurse with the Army Nurse Corps. She helped evacuate wounded soldiers from Italy and Africa. She also helped train evacuation nurses for the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. Ellen earned an Air Medal for her service. After the war, she moved to Indiana where she became the director of nursing and later an administrator at Union Hospital.