The talented Ms Marvingt Air ambulance pioneer

A fearless athlete and adventurer, Marie Marvingt is best remembered for her incredible persistence in introducing air ambulance services. The concept continues to save the lives of countless people around the world.

The Chicago Tribune once referred to Marie Marvingt as “the most remarkable woman since Joan of Arc”. Given what she achieved, it was no exaggeration. Born in France in 1874, Marvingt was a talented and determined athlete. She wouldn’t let anything or anyone stand in her way. When she was refused permission to participate in the Tour de France in 1908, because it was only open to men, she simply waited until the race had finished and rode the route anyway. Marvingt completed the gruelling course – a feat matched by barely a third of the male participants.

Marie Marvingt on-board a Deperdussin in 1912

She pursued many other sports with the same level of ambition, including golf, ice skating, shooting and mountaineering. In 1910, the French Academy of Sports awarded her a medal for all sports, the only multi-sport medal it has ever awarded.

In the air, too, she set one record after the next. In 1909, Marvingt became the first woman to pilot a balloon across the Channel to England. She was the third woman worldwide and second Frenchwoman to receive her pilot’s licence from the Aéro Club de France. Marvingt proved an excellent pilot, flying 900 flights in the notoriously difficult-to-fly Antoinette monoplane without a single accident. 

Continual setbacks

Yet it was in her most important ambition that the Frenchwoman almost fell short. As early as 1909, the trained nurse proposed the development of air ambulances for supplying the wounded and sick from the air. At that time, however, the concept fell on deaf ears. Marvingt’s attempt to design and equip an air ambulance with the help of the Deperdussin company also failed. Still, she did not give up.

Emile Friant's drawing of Marie Marvingt and her proposed air ambulance in 1914

In 1914, Marie Marvingt volunteered for the French Army, serving as a nurse. Again, she put forward her idea for an air ambulance – again without success. After the war, she worked in North Africa as a flying war correspondent. She was co-founder of the organisation Les Amies de l’Aviation Sanitaire (Friends of Medical Aviation), and gave more than 6,000 talks on the subject. In 1929, she organised the First International Congress on Medical Aviation. Her organisation trained nurses, doctors and pilots for emergency rescue operations using aircraft.

Persistence pays off

Finally, in 1934, the French government took notice of her proposal. Marvingt was tasked with establishing a civil air ambulance service in Morocco. For this, the Moroccan government subsequently awarded her the Medal of Peace of Morocco.

She embraced and conquered the world with her marvels, curiosities and secrets.

Rosalie MaggioBiographer

Even following this, her greatest success, Marvingt was to demonstrate time and again that she knew no limits. At the age of 80, she broke the sound barrier in the cockpit of an American F-10 fighter and learned to fly a helicopter. She died eight years later, in 1963. Her biographer, author Rosalie Maggio, wrote about Marvingt: “She was rather childlike. She wanted to see and experience everything. She embraced and conquered the world with her marvels, curiosities and secrets. For Marie, there were simply not enough hours in the day.”

Peter Pletschacher