Marie Marvingt, Superhero


Marie Marvingt achieved fame as an aviator, but she was also a pioneering skier and inventor of an early aluminum ski.

By Seth Masia

She’s famous in France, but nearly unheard of in North America. Marie Marvingt (1875-1963) was an athletic phenomenon who forged a path for women into mountaineering, martial arts, skiing, cycling, aviation and military service. Combining her careers as a surgical nurse and military aviator, she invented the concept and technology of the air ambulance, and promoted air-evac services around the world.

With few exceptions, women of her era who succeeded in alpinism and aviation had the support of their wealthy families or husbands. In fact, Marie never married and had to work for her adventures. Marie’s father, Felix Marvingt, was postmaster of Aurillac, a decidedly middle class occupation. After 1879 when, at age 52, Felix fled his stifling career as a bureaucrat, the family lived on his pension. A champion swimmer in his youth, Felix was 48 years old at Marie’s birth, and encouraged her to excel in sports – first swimming, then cycling, canoeing, mountaineering and gymnastics. From the age of five, she followed Felix on his own swims in the Moselle and on trekking holidays in the Alps. She proved a brilliant student, so there was no reason to restrict her extracurricular training. At 15, she trained with the Alphonse Rancy Circus, learning to do acrobatics on horseback. With a preternatural sense of balance, she quickly became a leading equestrienne. Equitation put her in touch with cavalry officers, who dominated the sport. For the rest of her life Marie maintained a close relationship with officers of the French Army.

Marie’s mother, Elisabeth, died in 1889. At age 14, Marie lost any feminizing influence Elisabeth may have exerted. Though she dressed fashionably and flirted easily, Marie increasingly devoted herself to sports. While attending the equivalent of high school in Metz in Lorraine, then a part of Germany, she learned archery, riflery, fencing, boxing, tennis, golf, track and field. And, of course, German. While studying medicine at the University of Nancy, she earned a reputation as a fierce competitor in all sports, winning against women in swimming and track, and against men in target-shooting. More passionate about sports than about medicine, she settled for a nursing license and supplemented that income as a sports and adventure writer. She sold articles, under the pseudonym Myriel, to dozens of newspapers. Returning to the Alps, she was the first woman to summit many of the high peaks around Chamonix.

Many women rode bicycles, but few entered races. Marie won the Nancy-Bordeaux race (600 miles) in 1904, Nancy-Milan (350 miles) in 1905 and Nancy-Toulouse (560 miles) in 1906.

That year, at age 31, she took up skiing in a serious way. Skiing in France and Italy was largely a military endeavor, as armies focused on frontier defense in the rising tensions with Germany and Austria. Marie set up the first civilian ski school in France, and at the second military ski meet, at Chamonix in 1908, she ran in the first organized cross country race for women, a three-kilometer sprint. While the races were covered widely in the French press, reporters paid not much attention to the women’s race. Coached by the Swedish expert Harald Durban-Hansen, Marie and her peers used two poles at a time when the French Army team was still paddling away with a single pole (see “End of the Single Pole, March-April Skiing History 2019). She apparently won the race, though no official records survive – perhaps there were none to begin with. Durban-Hansen also taught her ski-jumping.

In 1909 Marie repeated the win, at the Gérardmer meet. This time, all the women racers showed up in culottes rather than skirts, greatly improving their performance and setting ski fashion forever. The threepeat came at Ballon d’Alsace in 1910. Meanwhile, she won events in skating, luge and bobsleigh.

During the summer of 1908, Marie made bicycling history. At age 33, she tried to enter the Tour de France and was refused – the race would be for men only. That year the race covered 2,800 miles over 14 stages. An average of 200 miles a day on dirt roads with single-speed bikes was punishing even for the strongest cyclists, so organizers allowed a day of rest after each stage. Marie simply cycled each stage on the rest days. She finished handily, while 76 of the 114 male starters dropped out.

In the summers during her ski-racing career, Marie took up aviation. She first piloted a balloon in 1907, and during an October 1909 storm piloted the first east-to-west crossing of the North Sea from Europe to England, nearly drowning herself and her passenger. That year she soloed in an Antoinette, a fiendishly tricky monoplane designed before the standard stick-and-rudder control system was devised.

Like skiing, French aviation was heavily promoted by the French Army. Among Marie’s student-pilot friends was the cavalry and artillery officer Paul-Maurice Écheman. Écheman was also an accomplished skier and skater. The two became constant companions on the flying fields and in the mountains. While Marie set some of the first aviation records for women, Écheman was promoted to captain and put in charge of one of the first French Army airfields. In 1910, Marie had the idea of combining her surgical and piloting skills to create an air ambulance service. With Écheman’s encouragement, she presented the idea to the Army. It was too early, and the War Department wasn’t interested. Écheman died in a solo crash in 1911.

Now 35, Marie continued to set aviation records, which were featured in newspapers around the world. The fame enabled her to earn money flying in exhibitions. In winters, she continued to compete in winter sports. Increasingly she devoted time to developing the medical air-evacuation concept. She organized conferences to promote the idea and raised enough money to order a specially designed Deperdussin monoplane to carry a pilot plus two stretcher patients or a patient and doctor. The company went bankrupt before the plane was delivered; its designer, Louis Béchereau, went on to create the SPAD fighter series of World War I.

When war broke out, Marie went straight to work as a surgical nurse. The Army wouldn’t let her fly military missions, but she became a part-time civilian flight instructor training new Army pilots. After all, she was one of the world’s most experienced aviators, with a sterling reputation. She had completed more than 900 flights without ever seriously damaging an airplane, while more than 15 percent of pilots licensed in 1910 were killed before the war – and that doesn’t include the student pilots who died before being licensed (77 percent of French pilots died during the war). In March, 1915, one of her surgical patients was an injured pilot, and she learned there was no replacement for him in his bombing squadron. She talked her way into the cockpit and flew two bombing missions over a German airfield. She was thus the world’s first female combat pilot. The army turned a blind eye. Officially, she was a nurse. Unofficially, she flew missions as a “scout” – that is, solo reconnaissance in a fighter plane. Then, with the collusion of an infantry lieutenant (and some help from her friend Marshall Foch), she put on a private’s uniform and served in the trenches. After six weeks she was wounded lightly and sent to infirmary. That was the end of her infantry career, but Foch assigned her to the Italian alpine troops fighting Austria in the Dolomites, officially as a combat nurse. It was the perfect job. As a skier and alpinist, for six months she engineered the evacuation of wounded soldiers from the mountain peaks and passes, and skied in food and medical supplies. After that, she spent most of 1916 at the Italian front, ostensibly as a war correspondent. There are big gaps in what is known about her travels, and friends assumed she was working for military intelligence. What with flying, fighting, nursing and spying, at the end of the war Marie earned both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.

After the war, Marie campaigned tirelessly for her medical air-evacuation program, and this, oddly enough, led to the invention of an aluminum ski. Travelling with French and Italian forces in the Sahara, as both a medical officer and war correspondent, in 1923 she designed aluminum skis for an experimental medevac airplane to land on sand. That led her to think about skis for herself. Back in France in 1927, she found a metal shop in Nancy that could forge skis from solid aircraft-grade aluminum alloy. She had two pairs made, one pair for sand in the desert. She tested the other pair on snow in Chamonix. The sand skis were certainly better than walking up dunes in sandals, but the snow skis proved no improvement over ash and hickory ski. Undamped, they were nearly uncontrollable on firm snow, and as they didn’t absorb wax, could glide in soft snow only in a very narrow temperature range. Nonetheless, her skis represented a start, and French aluminum foundries near the Alps began looking for a way to combine wood-ski performance with aluminum durability – a problem eventually solved in 1947, in the United States.

Marie had many more adventures, including leading early motorized expeditions across the Sahara, first in a modified Fiat truck and later in Citroën six-wheelers. By the early ‘30s her flying ambulance concept was on a roll, and she held many international conferences to promote the concept. She established the Captain Écheman Award for the best-equipped medical aircraft, and launched the first training course for medevac nurses. During World War II she returned to the Red Cross, and was honored after the war for unspecified actions on behalf of the French Resistance.

Into her 80s, Marie was widely honored by the aviation community and French government, but she descended into genteel poverty and died in a hospice, penniless, in 1963, at age 88.

Sources for this article include Une histoire du ski by Franck Cochoy ; Marie Marvingt : Fiancée of Danger, by Marcel Cordier and Rosalie Maggio; “Bride of Danger,” in The Strand Magazine, September 1913; The Culture and Sport of Skiing, by E. John B. Allen; and Before Amelia: Women pilots in the early days of aviation, by Eileen F. Lebow.