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Marie Marvingt, the Bride of Danger

Posted by Sean Daly on Mar 6, 2024
Photos of Marie Marvingt: portrait, ski jumping, in the cockpit of her airplane

March 8 is International Women’s Day and this week, we want to tell you about a trailblazing superwoman who is largely forgotten today: sportswoman, pilot and aerospace medicine advocate Marie Marvingt, the Bride of Danger!

Marie Félicie Elisabeth Marvingt was born on February 20, 1875, in Aurillac, a town in the Auvergne region of France. Her parents Félix and Elisabeth, who had lived in Metz in the Moselle département (county) in Lorraine, had lost three infant sons before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870; they fled German occupation and settled temporarily in Auvergne. When Marie was five years old, the family which now included little brother Eugène returned to Metz. Marie learned German in school while the family spoke French at home. Félix, a postmaster who loved sports, encouraged Marie to begin swimming as a child and soon father and tomboy daughter were trying different sports together, from billiards to boxing to hunting and fishing.

Settling in Nancy, Lorraine

After Marie’s mother Elisabeth passed away in 1889, Félix moved Marie and Eugène to Nancy, in Lorraine on the French side of the border, where Marie would live most of her life. Eugène was sickly, but Marie threw herself into sports, learning horsemanship and gymnastics including tightrope walking (at a circus! where she also learned juggling and hand-reading), marksmanship, tennis, judo, sculling, golf, rollerskating, archery, canoeing, sailing, motorboating, diving, hockey, polo and water polo, mountain climbing, and other sports; she was thrilled by competition. She particularly enjoyed cycling, which she did her whole life; she reportedly cycled to Naples once to view the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Eugène died in 1897; more than ever, Marie and her father bonded over their love of sports. Marie studied literature, medecine, and law and became a nurse and surgeon’s assistant. She learned other languages and wrote poetry. It was around this time that she resolved never to marry or to have children. “I will always be simply mademoiselle,” she once said. “I couldn’t bear the ties of marriage, and I don’t think any man would put up with me for long. I’m more interested in mountain climbing than in washing dishes.”

This postcard doesn’t mention who is jumping, but it was reported at the time (c.1910) to be Marie Marvingt! Le Lioran was and is a popular ski resort in the extinct-volcano region of Auvergne.

A superwoman of sports

In 1899, Marie obtained her driver’s license and operated a steam locomotive and steamboat with permission. In 1901, she was a passenger in a balloon for the first time, flying solo in 1907. In 1904, she ran her first long cycling race, from Nancy to Bordeaux; the following year, she raced from Nancy to Milan, crossing the Alps; the year after, she was refused entry to the Tour de France as a woman, so ran the race unofficially. In 1903, guided by members of the Payot family, she climbed the Dent du Géant (Giant’s Tooth) followed by the Aiguille du Grépon (the Needle of Grépon) and a number of other Alpine peaks, including the Jungfrau and the Wetterhorn in Switzerland. In 1906, she swam the 12km competition in the Seine through Paris, and the next year won the 20km Toulouse competition. She explored caves and enjoyed land sailing; she was a fencer and marksman, winning a medal in 1907 with a Flobert military carbine. From 1908, she won competitions in Chamonix, Gérardmer, and the Ballon d’Alsace in skiing (cross-country, downhill, jumping), speed and figure skating, luge, and bobsledding, winning 20 medals. In 1909, she crossed the English Channel in her balloon “L’Etoile Filante” (the Shooting Star) with a passenger — nearly losing her life in the 14-hour trip — and did it again later from the Netherlands. In nearly everything she tried, she excelled, winning prizes, awards, and medals. In 1910, she was awarded a special gold medal for “Excellence In All Sports” by l’Académie des Sports Française, the first and only person to have ever been given this award.

Captain Paul Echeman was a close friend of Marie Marvingt and they shared passions for flying and sports, often spending time together at Chamonix. He died of a brain injury sustained in a crash landing on May 14, 1912.
Marie Marvingt prepares a departure in her balloon “La Lorraine” from the Nancy racecourse, June 26, 1910, less than a year after successfully crossing the English Channel.
The Antoinette was a slender and graceful single-wing airplane… which killed a number of pilots in the heady years of aviation before the Great War. Well-taught by Hubert Latham who she admired, as well as other Antoinette pilots, Marie flew many hundreds of flights over two years without mishap. She did crash twice, but both times was back up in the air soon after.
Marie learned piloting with Hubert Latham, who twice attempted to cross the English Channel in 1909 in his Antoinette, and both times had to ditch due to fuel line issues. Six days after Latham’s second attempt, Louis Blériot succeeded. From Geneanet’s fabulous Postcards collection – thanks fjchmeyer!
Marie Marvingt was liked and respected by her fellow pilots for her energy, courage, competence, and enthusiasm. This November 1910 photo was taken minutes after she set the women’s time aloft record of 53 minutes for the Coupe Femina, an achievement in the days when an airplane might collapse in midair. This record was broken only ten days later by Belgian pilot Hélène Dutrieu flying a Farman!

Marie becomes a pilot

In September 1909, Marie was delighted to fly in an airplane for the first time as a passenger of Roger Sommer and decided immediately to become a pilot. She learned flying on the Antoinette with Hubert Latham, who twice attempted to cross the English Channel that summer (but was beaten by Louis Blériot days after the second ditching). The Antoinette, designed by Léon Levavasseur and named after his daughter, was a slender and graceful single-wing airplane piloted with an unwieldly system of a pair of wheels. Difficult to fly, a number of pilots perished in the airplane including Jules Hauvette-Michelin (Gabriel Hauvette) and Charles Wachter. Marie obtained her brévet (license), N°281, in November 1910, the third woman in France and the world to do so, and weeks later won her first Coupe Femina for a 53-minute flight. In December 1910 she wrote, “How delicious it is to be a bird!”

Marie in her beloved Antoinette, a particularly difficult airplane to fly.

“The sport of flying, in my view, brings out man’s highest faculties. In the currents of the air, just like those of the sea, one meets the strongest characters, the most stoic courage. Those who go up there never know if they will return alive, and this constant vision of danger and of possible death often brings out the best in us.”

Marie Marvingt, 1913.

Marie Marvingt did crash twice, the first time two years after she started flying, but both times was back up in the air soon after. She had flown hundreds of flights in her beloved craft without mishap, and had even tried out the world’s first pilot simulator, a mockup of the Antoinette with its complex two-wheel control system, the cockpit being a half barrel. After 1912, from the Antoinette, Marie flew a Deperdussin, and occasionally seaplanes after the war until 1936.

The air ambulance concept

Even before the war started, Marie — as a nurse and pilot — felt that airplanes could be used for medical evacuations. In those pre-helicopter days, any field could be a landing strip for fixed-wing aircraft. In 1913, she recruited engineer and designer Louis Béchereau, at the Société de Production des Aéroplanes Deperdussin (SPAD), to conceive an air ambulance named for Paul Echeman, a close friend who had died in a crash landing the year before. Unfortunately, the arrest for embezzlement of Armand Deperdussin in August of that year torpedoed the project. Under Béchereau’s direction, SPAD produced a number of successful wartime aircraft.

On July 4, 1917, US General Pershing laid a wreath at the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette in the small Picpus cemetery in Paris. Marie was there and was pleased to meet Eugene Bullard, the first African-American fighter pilot whom we have written about previously.
Marie was a nurse and surgeon’s assistant in Nancy during the war and one night, ran out of her ward to watch a zeppelin narrowly missing the hospital with a bomb.


Marie’s exploits were so varied and astonishing and unusual that the press called her “la Fiancée du Danger”, the Bride of Danger. It’s not surprising that the press too often exaggerated her very real achievements, or got facts wrong. In particular, there are doubts about widely repeated stories of World War I. What is undisputed is that she was a nurse in Nancy; that her hospital was bombed by a zeppelin, fortunately without losses; that she designed a dual-bicycle with a litter between to ferry the wounded. But did she really fight in the trenches for three months disguised as a man? It is said a lieutenant acting under the orders of Marshal Foch facilitated this adventure. It’s true she was a crack shot with a rifle, but every soldier knows a unit’s doctor examines every new arrival. Is it true she filled in for an ill bombardier, and dropped bombs on the German airbase of Metz-Frescaty? It’s not impossible she was accorded access to the airfield as a famous pilot known to all, as a journalist (for “L’Eclair de l’Est” and other titles, often using the pseudonym “Myriel”), and as a personal friend of Marshal Foch; nor is it impossible she flew in the bomber, thinking about revenge for her bombed hospital in Nancy. There is however no evidence we could find that she was awarded the Croix de Guerre following the incident. Marshal Foch did send her to the Italian sector with a safe-conduct pass to accompany an alpine unit.

Marie lived in Morocco for a time after the war and travelled throughout Africa and the Middle East as well as Europe, North and South America, and India. In this image, she met with women in Istanbul after giving a speech about women in aviation. Révue Aéronautique de France, January 1931.
This commemorative label stamp was issued for the First International Congress on Sanitary Aviation in 1929. Marie Marvingt was one of the organizers of the event.

The interwar years: Marie becomes a conference speaker

Aviation was changed by the war. The primitive, fragile craft of the prewar period had been replaced by sturdy machines. There was a glut of pilots but no market to support work for them. Marie rarely flew after the war and instead reinvented herself as a conference speaker, talking about aviation, sports, the role of women in society, and other topics of the day, often to female audiences. She lived in Morocco for a time, where she spoke at schools and designed metal skis for use on sand, adapted later by the French Air Force for aircraft. Marie toured Africa, Europe, and North America (in 1935 and 1937), inspiring generations of young women. Wherever she went, she spoke about medical aviation.

Marie Marvingt, from the very first generation of women pilots, and Amelia Earhart, setting her own records, admired each other. This photo was taken in 1935 after Marie spoke at the US National Aeronautical Association in Chicago. When Amelia disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937, Marie wrote a moving eulogy, writing: “The ten days since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her companion have been, for me, one of the most poignant dramas I have ever lived through”.
Marie was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1933, promoted to Officier in 1949. This official record mentions her wartime experience, however we have unfortunately not found corroborating evidence of that.

France’s highest honor, the Légion d’Honneur

In 1934, Marie earned the medal of the Chévalier de la Légion d’Honneur which in 1949 was upgraded to Officier.

World War II

When war came to France again, Marie fled Nancy and founded a halfway house for convalescing aviators released from hospital, “Le Repos des Ailes” (The Wings’ Rest) in Sainte-Alvère, Dordogne.

Marie Marvingt is remembered by residents of Nancy, her lifelong home; children in the 1950s remember the tireless old lady zipping about on her bike.
Marie Marvingt learning to fly a helicopter in 1955. She passed away before she could obtain her license.

The postwar years

In later years, Marie struggled to get by in Nancy. She did nursing work and had a small pension from her work as a journalist. She did have the spacious family home to herself and remained fiercely independent, cycling anywhere she needed to go. In 1954, Marie was awarded the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize. It is said the US Air Force offered her a ride in a two-seater jet in 1955. She became interested in piloting helicopters and in 1961, she even cycled to Paris over six days on her beloved “Zéphyrine”!

At age 86, Marie took a final long trip: from Nancy, she rode ten hours a day for six days, including a rest stop every two hours, and dinner and lodging at inns offered by awestruck hosts. Here she is riding in Place de la Madeleine in Paris!
In 2004, the French postal service issued a stamp honoring Marie Marvingt for her work on air ambulances.

The legacy of Marie Marvingt: sportswoman, pilot, advocate for air ambulances

Marie Marvingt died age 88 in a hospice outside Nancy on December 14, 1963. Without immediate family, her lifetime of archives in her home, including her medals, her letters and photos, the manuscripts of two unpublished books and the reels of two films, were unfortunately discarded and lost before the local museum (having asked for her archives) could intervene. She is remembered today for her astonishing sports achievements; in 1987, she was posthumously inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. She is also recognized as one of the great women pilots of the first generation of fliers. However, perhaps her greatest legacy is in her tireless advocacy in the field of aerospace medecine. In the early days of aviation, the very idea of an air ambulance, or of aviators requiring specialized medical care, seemed ridiculous. But Marie Marvingt was convinced that aviation could save lives. Although her flying career was short, interrupted by the Great War, and her design for a specially designed medical evacuation aircraft was never built due to circumstances beyond her control, her lifelong efforts to promote medical aviation live on. In 1923, she participated in the 11th International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva, part of the French delegation proposing clauses concerning medical aircraft; proposed clauses were introduced in 1925 (but not incorporated into the Geneva Conventions until 1949). In May 1929, she helped organize the First International Congress on Sanitary Aviation in Paris, with 400 delegates attending from 40 nations; there were presenters from France, Italy, Poland, and Sweden. (That same year, the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA) was founded in Detroit; today there are members from 70 countries.) In 1931, Marie established the Challenge Capitaine Écheman to reward designers who could convert existing aircraft to air ambulances efficiently. And finally, starting in 2005 and continuing to this day, the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA) through its French member SOFRAMAS awards annually the Marie Marvingt Prize for outstanding innovation in aerospace medecine. Marie’s memory has been kept alive by her biographers Marcel Cordier, based in Nancy, and the late Rosalie Maggio, who published their collaborative work in 1991 in English and French. Streets and schools are named after Marie, there are commemorative plaques where she lived in Nancy and Dordogne, and her grave near Nancy is looked after by Marcel, a tireless advocate to preserve Marie’s memory.

Marie’s biographer Marcel Cordier of Nancy looks after her grave. Photo by Geneanet member csemprez (thanks!)
Every year since 2005, the Aerospace Medical Association through its French member the Société Francophone de Médecine Aérospatiale (SOFRAMAS) selects a recipient of the Marie Marvingt Award recognizing excellence and innovation in Aerospace Medicine. Pictured at the 2023 ceremony in New Orleans are, left to right: Susan Northrup, MD, MPH, President of the AsMA; David K. McKenas, MD, MPH, award winner; and Dr. René Germa of SOFRAMAS.


Margaret TAYLOR (margtayl)  

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What a totally worthy account for International Womens’ Day. What an absolutely amazing woman, for any time, but especially for the time she lived in. I wonder why we have not heard more of her?

Antoinette GUIDI (alguidi2)  

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c’est ce que toutes les femmes doivent avoir dans leurs reves d’achever et de reussir malgre les differences et les difficule de chaque jour. Bravo merci pour le great message

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