Today, a remarkable woman. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The year was 1961 when 86-year-old Marie Marvingt cycled 175 miles
from Nancy to Paris. She'd been an athlete all her life. In 1908 she was denied entry into
the Tour de France because of her gender, so she cycled and finished the entire course by
herself. Only a third of the male competitors had managed to finish it. By then, the
33-year-old Marvingt had won prizes in ten or so different sports and was a superb mountaineer
to boot. She'd been the first woman to climb many major peaks in the Alps.
She'd taken up ballooning in 1901, and now became the first woman to pilot balloons across
both the English Channel and the North Sea. Then, in 1910, she became only the third woman
licensed to fly an aeroplane and she quickly set distance and duration records. Flight was
then murderously dangerous, but she managed 900 consecutive flights without a crash.
WW-I began in 1914, and Marvingt set out to make her contribution. First she disguised herself
as a man and fought with the French infantry at the front. She was found out and sent home.
But then Marshall Foch asked her to help an alpine regiment in the Italian Dolomites. After
that she served as a Red Cross Nurse. She was finally allowed to fly aerial bombing missions
and, for that, she won the Croix de Guerre.
That made her the first woman to do aerial combat. (Ljuba Golantschikowa,
an Estonian woman, joined the aerial war two years later. She'd studied flying with
Anthony Fokker in Germany before the
war. Then she joined the Russian Imperial Air Force and flew as an aerial observer in the war
But Marvingt had something other than combat on her mind. Before the war, she had the idea of
using aeroplanes for aerial ambulance service. She'd presented a design to French aerial pioneer
and it might've been built. But, just then, Deperdussin was caught embezzling from his own company.
Marvingt spent the rest of her life advocating aerial ambulance service. She co-founded an
organization called The Friends of Aviation Medicine. She lectured tirelessly on behalf of such
service. She formed an air ambulance service in Morocco. She created training courses for aerial
nurses. She wrote and directed documentaries on the use of aerial ambulances.
She became the most decorated woman in France -- meanwhile publishing poetry under a pseudonym
(Myriel). Then, on her 80th birthday, this woman who'd flown in balloons before the Wright
Brothers' first powered flight, was given a ride in a supersonic
Voodoo jet. And, that same year, she
earned her helicopter pilot's license.
I live near one of the great American medical centers,
here in Houston; and I often watch
coming and going. Now that I know about Marie Marvingt, I'll never again look at one of them -- or I suppose,
watch a M*A*S*H rerun -- without thinking of her.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
See the Wikipedia article on Marie Marvingt
for a wealth of information. See also the Hargrave site dealing with Marvingt.
Marvingt photo and aerial ambulance drawing courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Life-Flight photo by J. Lienhard.
Click here for a short documentary video on Marie Marvingt.
It features Marvingt herself (in French without subtitles.)
Marie Marvingt and her proposed air ambulance, drawn by Émile Friant in 1914.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.