Friday, April 15, 2016

M is for Marie Marvingt - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Marie Marvingt (1875-1963)
seated in Deperdussin monoplane
Marie Marvingt was fourteen-years-old living in Metz, France (then Germany) with her parents and brother, when her mother died. Marie was put in charge of taking care of the household, but still found time for the books she loved to read on scientists and explorers. She had a heart for learning and adventure.

Her father, a senior postmaster, moved the family to Nancy, where he encouraged Marie to get outdoors and participate in sports. Marie already had a reputation in the family for being an excellent swimmer and didn't need much encouragement.

She liked just about any competitive sport: water polo, swimming, horseback riding, bicycling, canoeing, tennis, golf, football, martial arts, fencing, shooting, even performing circus skills.

At fifteen, she canoed over 248 miles (400km). She especially enjoyed mountain sports and mountaineering, becoming a world class athletic in 1903, as the first woman to climb the French and Swiss Alps, as well as the first Frenchwoman to swim the length of the Seine River (through Paris). She won a military shooting competition in 1907, and between 1908 and 1910, placed first on twenty different occasions in winter sports. Marie was a true champion. Other than being denied entry in the 1908 Tour de France (women not allowed), there seemed nothing Marie couldn't do. Later, Marie actually biked the Tour de France course in its entirety after the event, a fact she was proud of, since only 36 of the 114 male riders had succeeded. In March 1910, she received a multi-sport Gold Medal from the French Academy of Sports in full recognition of her achievements. She was 35.

Marie competing in ski-jumping
Marie turned to aviation and flying as the next big challenge. It would become her greatest achievement yet, but not in a way she could have foreseen or imagined.

She had already tried ballooning in 1907, becoming a pilot in 1909 and later that year, the first woman to balloon across the North Sea and English Channel from Europe to England. She took a ride in an airplane next and was instantly smitten with the sport. After studying fix-winged aviation with Hubert Latham, one of France's great aviators, she learned to pilot an Antoinette monoplane, becoming the first woman to fly this particular plane in September 1910.

Marie shared her enthusiasm in an article she wrote for Collier's Magazine (1911):

“This new sport is comparable to no other. It is, in my opinion, one of the most intoxicating forms of sport, and will, I am sure, become one of the most popular. Many of us will perish before then, but that prospect will not dismay the braver spirits. In devoting themselves to the new cause, those who have the true aviator's soul will find in their struggle with the atmosphere a rich compensation for the risks they face. It is so delicious to fly like a bird!"

Marie competed in a number of air races, but did not win the highly prized Femina Cup in 1910, as first reported. Apparently she entered the race more than once, but never won.

Marie in the Antoinette monoplane, 1911

1912. Deperdussin monoplane that Marie flew

Marie shifted gears and changed her focus. As a trained surgical nurse with the Red Cross (her training is unclear), she began to ponder the possibility of an air ambulance for evacuation of the wounded. Convinced that a Deperdussin monoplane could be adapted, she worked with the owner of the Deperdussin factory, Armand Deperdussin. The design made sense: the plane would have a 100 hp engine and a radio to communicate with doctors and medical supply people, and the patient would lie on a stretcher inside the plane. It was an improvement over one design that put the patient on the plane's wing! Excited, Marie managed to raise enough money for the project, and with cash in hand, placed an order in 1912. Unfortunately, Armand Deperdussin never delivered. He left the company and ran off with funds for the plane!

One can assume Marie felt pretty disgusted at this point. Her efforts to built a much needed air ambulance had been wasted on an unscrupulous factory owner.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Marie disguised herself as a man and joined the French infantry. She served in the front lines until being discovered and was sent home. Later, however, she was asked to assist the alpine troops serving in the Italian Dolomites, a mountain range located in northeastern Italy. Her experience in winter sports and mountain climbing was apparently valued, as was her training as a nurse in the Red Cross. In 1915, she was accepted as a volunteer pilot and became the first woman to do aerial combat in the world. She received the Croix de guerre (Military Cross) for aerial bombing of a military base in Germany.

After the war Marie's interest in developing air ambulance service continued. With the African and Middle Eastern Colonial Wars that soon followed in the 1920s, the need was still great. Many air evacuations of soldiers were being made by the British and French. Marie traveled with the French some, emphasizing the air ambulance's  importance, and probably to observe its use. Methods were rather limited then, for example, a single stretcher attached under the plane's fairing. Hardly safe! It was reported the French made 7000 air evacuations. 

Safer air ambulances had the patient inside the plane on a stretcher behind the pilot, similar to the design Marie paid Deperdussin to build.

Air Ambulance, 1918. Location unknown

A French air ambulance. Date unknown

Marie co-founded Friends of Medical Aviation and helped organize the First International Congress on Medical Aviation in 1929. Delegates from 41 countries attended. She became a vocal voice for air ambulances all over the world, organizing more than 3000 conferences and seminars on the subject.

In the 1930s, Marie served as a war correspondent, journalist, and medical officer in Morocco, working with French Forces in North Africa. In 1934, she established a civil air ambulance service in Morocco and was rewarded for her efforts with the Medal of Peace of Morocco. Training courses were set up next for the nurses (Nurses of the Air) and in 1935 Marie became the first person in history certified as a Flight Nurse

By 1939, with the onset of World War II, Marie had been an active proponent of air ambulance evacuation for almost thirty years. She was 64. One can imagine the urgency she  felt traveling to America (several times) to discuss the subject with U.S. leaders. Back at home Marie started recruiting women pilots and nurses. More than 500 Nurses with pilot training volunteered in France for a new parachute corps, backed by the famous French pilot, Marse Hilsz. They would jump in places the air ambulances couldn't reach. Meanwhile, Marie established a special convalescent center for wounded aviators and served as a surgical nurse. She also invented a new surgical suture.

In 1955, Marie was honored by the French National Federation of Aeronautics for her work in aviation medicine, the Deutsch de la Meurthe grand prize. Not one to sit still, she learned to pilot a helicopter that same year. It's said she also biked from Nancy to Paris in the 1961, over two hundred miles. She was 86 at the time. 


Sharon M. Himsl

Writer/Author. Blogging since 2011. 
Published with Evernight Teen: 
~~The Shells of Mersing


  1. An extremely wonderful post, I didn't realise there were so many women pilots in the past.

  2. Wow! What a remarkable woman! I'm floored... I wonder why we don't learn about her in school...

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

    1. Good point but there is so much our kids have to learn, they need to learn stories like this on their own.

  3. My husband's a pilot. This post was most informative :)

    1. Ah, another pilot's wife :) Glad you could read. Thanks for visiting.

  4. An yet another adventurous woman in aviation. I had no idea there were so many pioneers who took to the sky. So interesting to read each of their stories.

    1. Thanks again Lee. Almost to the halfway point!

  5. HI, Sharon. We've crossed paths before (I think during the 2014 A2Z Challenge). This year, I am part of the inimitable Helen Hollick's Challenge - featuring award-winning Historical Fiction authors.

    I wish you blue skies and endless horizons with your own flying adventures.

    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting. I need to check out your blog next :)

  6. Wow! What an amazing woman. Thank you for making her better known!!!

    Mary Montague Sikes
    Notes Along the Way
    The Artful Way

    1. Thanks for stopping back Mary. Glad you're enjoying the series!

  7. Very Interesting!!!!! Nice picture of you and your hubby!!!

    1. Oh, our picture at the end. Had no idea why it went so big and couldn't control, but decided to keep. Love it of us too. Thanks :)

  8. I love these bios of great women! Marie sounds like a true super-hero. The planes she flew a the beginning seem frighteningly flimsy. I don't think I'd be brave enough to go up in one. Shame on that horrible factory owner for stealing the money! Thanks for the great post!

    1. They remind me of the model airplanes some of us built as kids. Yeah...grr that factory guy. He eventually got caught and served time but apparently the money had been spent. I'm glad I decided to include international women. There were plenty to choose from in the U.S. too.

  9. What an amazing series! And the research you've done is mind-boggling. Wow!
    Carol at My Writing Journal

    1. Thank you! Hope to see you again. All the best in the a-z!

  10. This is so interesting and what an amazing way man who had tons of courage or guts...or both! How long was she in the infantry before she was found out?nhow did they find out? I mean...didn't they do Medicals?? She should be known in school.

  11. Oh golly. You raise some good questions. Info is probably written in French somewhere. Didn't see it. Would make a great movie though. Thanks for commenting Birgit!

  12. Wow, she was one very talented woman. Thanks for this post and information.


"Stay" is a charming word in a friend's vocabulary
(A.B. Alcott). Stay and visit awhile. Your comments mean a lot to me.

About Me

My photo
You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.