First Female Air Ambulance Pioneer – Marie Marvingt

Marvingt devoted the remainder of her long life to the concept of aeromedical evacuation

Émile Friant’s drawing of Marie Marvingt and her proposed air ambulance, 1914

Marie Marvingt (20 February 1875 – 14 December 1963) was a French athlete, mountaineer, aviator and journalist. She won numerous prizes for her sporting achievements including those of swimming, cycling, mountain climbing, winter sports, ballooning, flying, riding, gymnastics, athletics, rifle shooting and fencing. She was a woman whose records were almost incredible and was the first woman to climb many of the peaks in the French and Swiss Alps. She was a record-breaking balloonist, a pioneering aviator and during World War I became the first woman to fly combat missions as a bomber pilot. She was also a qualified surgical nurse, was the first trained and certified Flight Nurse in the world, and worked for the establishment of air ambulance services throughout the world.

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 an 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.