Marie Marvingt: Air Ambulance Pioneer

Marie Marvingt was, by all accounts, a remarkable person in life, but almost unknown outside France. And even in France it took considerable work by biographers to revive her amazing story nearly twenty years after her death in December 1963. Marvingt was the ultimate sportswomen in France and a dedicated advocate for the development of aeromedical evacuation.


She was born on February 20, 1875, at Aurillac, France. Her father, Felix, a postmaster, strongly encouraged Marie to pursue sports. By the age of five she reportedly could swim 4,000 meters. In 1890, when she was 15, she canoed more than 400 kilometers from her home in Nancy, France, to Koblenz, Germany. She also competed in water polo, speed skating, luge, bobsledding, boxing, martial arts, fencing, shooting, tennis, golf, hockey, football, mountaineering, and also studied at the local circus learning rope work, the trapeze, horseback riding, and juggling. In 1899 she earned her driver’s license. Marvingt was just getting started.


Between 1903 and 1910 she was one of the first women to climb most of the peaks in the French and Swiss Alps.  In 1905 she swam the length of the Seine River through Paris, won an international military shooting competition in 1907 and became the only women to be awarded the palms du Premier Tireur (First Gunner palms) by a French Minister of War. She dominated the winter sports seasons in France between 1908 and 1910, collecting more than 20 first place victories, including the women’s world bobsledding championship in 1910. And to get a good look at a volcanic eruption, she cycled from Nancy, France to Naples, Italy. When she was refused admission to the 1908 Tour de France because, after all, it was a man’s sport, she successfully completed the course on her own, covering more than 4000 km and traversing 8 mountain passes, while averaging more than 150 km per day. Only 36 of 114 male riders completed the course during the official race that year.


In March of 1910 the French Academy of Sports (Académie des Sports) awarded her a Gold Medal for all sports, the only multi-sport medal the Academy has ever awarded.


Looking for new challenges, Marvingt soon turned her attention to aviation, first with hot air balloons and later with fixed-wing aircraft. Her first balloon ride was in 1901, she piloted a balloon in July 1907 and soloed as a balloon pilot in September 1909. In October of that year she became the first women to pilot a balloon across the North Sea and English Channel to England. The Aero Club of France issued her a balloon pilot’s license in June 1910 and in November she became the third women in the world – the second in France -- to be licensed to fly fixed-wing aircraft. She was the first women to solo in monoplane (single wing) aircraft, generally believed to be more difficult to fly safely. She participated in many air shows and in December 1910, while competing in Turin for the Coupe Femina (Femina Cup), she set the first official women's flight records for duration and distance at 53 minutes and 42 kilometers. In 1911 she won the Coupe Femina. In her first 900 flights she reportedly never “broke wood”, or damaged an aircraft, which was remarkable feat. Among those who learned to fly prior to WWI, 87 percent are said to have died in aircraft accidents.


In addition to the many things Marvingt did to earn a living, including journalism, poetry, and hosting conferences, she was also a trained surgical nurse with the Red Cross and various hospitals. She also found the time to disguise herself as a man and fight on the front lines until she was discovered. Later she became the first women to fly bombing missions over Germany, and was knowingly tapped as a women to assist alpine troops due to her mountaineering skills..


Marvingt turned her attention from sport aviation to promote the use of airplanes to evacuate wounded to hospitals and transport surgical supplies and nurses to where they were needed. Making the case was certainly an uphill struggle in that aircraft were generally considered dangerous and unreliable.


She described her vision of an air ambulance based upon a Deperdussin monoplane powered by a 100 hp engine with a radio to communicate with senior physicians and resupply medical aid posts. She worked with the principal engineer at the Deperdussin aircraft factory. Her design with an interior litter was much more practical than a competing design, which demanded that the patient lie unprotected on the wing next to the pilot/physician.


Marvingt used her conferences to promote the idea and raise the needed to funds to build the air ambulance. She placed her order in 1912. The Deperdussin factory, however, failed in 1913 when the owner embezzled funds before her aircraft could be completed. She began a new round of conferences to raise the funds for a second attempt.


She developed contacts with some doctors who shared some or all of vision for an air ambulance service. Dr. Duchaussoy organized a meeting with government officials in April 1912 to discuss the construction of an airplane ambulance and he began to raise funds similar to that undertaken by Marvingt. Dr. Eugene Chassaing was able to finally convince the French government to allow him to test the concept of the air ambulance, converting an old Dorand AR-2 into the first documented air ambulance. Test flights were conducted but it is unclear whether wounded soldiers were evacuated by air.


In the post-war period the momentum for development of air ambulances moved forward.  British and French colonial wars in the 1920s demonstrated the actual use of extensive aerial evacuation systems. Marvingt traveled with French forces during some of these expeditions, which underscored the utility or air ambulances for military and civilian use. She redoubled her efforts to popularize the concept over her lifetime and is credited with hosting somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000. In 1929, she assisted Richet, Charlet, and Chassaing, along with others in organizing and running the first International Congress on Medical Aviation, which was attended by delegates from 41 countries. Along with Robert Charlet, she founded of Friends of Medical Aviation and served as its Vice President. In the 1930s she turned her attention to developing courses and programs to train personnel for the expansion of medical aviation.


Many individuals came together over the years to turn a concept and vision into a meaningful reality, and most praised Marvingt for her leadership and untiring support. In January 1955 the Fédération National d'Aéronautique de France et d'Outre-Mer at the Sorbonne presented her with the grand prize Deutsch de la Meurthe, in recognition of her victory in developing medical aviation against so much opposition. She also established a  air ambulance service in Morocco and was awarded the Medal de la Paix of Morocco.


One thing that is for certain, Marvingt never slowed down. When she was 80 she earned her helicopter pilots license, and later flew over her home town in a US fighter jet, reportedly breaking the sound barrier.