Daring Doctor Takes Wing

A School of Medicine alumna is one of the matriarchs of aviation
Bessica Medlar Raiche

In the 1920s, the patients of Dr. Bessica Medlar Raiche would never have guessed that their humble doctor happed to be one of the matriarchs of aviation. Or that in 1910, the same woman whom they knew as an obstetrician and gynecologist had been presented a gold medal studded with diamonds, engraved as follows, “To the first woman aviator in America, Bessica Raiche, presented by her admiring friends of the Aeronautical Society.”

It would appear that Raiche, who made history as a pioneer of aviation, left her wings far behind when she settled in California in 1912 and resumed her medical career.

Born in Wisconsin in 1875, and raised with the influence of an inventor father, the young Bessica Medlar excelled in athletics as well as the arts, mastering language, painting, and music. Educated in Illinois, she received her medical degree from Tufts in 1903 and later specialized in obstetrics at the Children’s Hospital on Staten Island.

Due to ill health, she retreated to Paris for a time, where she met her future husband, Francois Raiche. In 1909, amidst the fervor of aviation, the couple began to experiment with building a biplane similar to the model developed by Glenn H. Curtis.

“Our ideas of airplanes were quite different then,” she told the Santa Ana Register in 1929. “We sacrificed everything for lightness. Bamboo was used whenever possible in the framework, and where metal was absolutely necessary, we hollowed it out to do away with weight as much as possible. Then wings were covered with a thin China silk, and I varnished this myself to make it stronger. The present planes, with their immense weight, would have been totally unbelievable to us in that day.” Raiche, speaking of her first flight in the plane she and her husband built especially for her, told the Santa Ana reporter, “There were no controls on the engine, and when we were ready to take off, three or four men held the plane while a mechanic turned the engine – and I sat there mentally praying it would leave the ground all right.” The flight went smoothly, and within a few weeks, she reached the extraordinary altitude of 30 feet.

A return to health prompted Raiche to return to the United States. In 1912, her aerial exploits ended, and she moved to California, where she practiced medicine until her death 20 years later.