Prior to specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, Bessica Medlar Raiche, M1903, was the first American woman to fly solo
When Bessica Medlar Raiche received her medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine in 1903, it was only her first remarkable accomplishment. In 1910, 17 years before Amelia Earhart embarked on her famous flight, Raiche took to the air, earning the honor of the first American woman to fly solo. Oh, and she built the plane herself.
Bessica Faith Medlar was born in Wisconsin in 1875. She was an accomplished artist, athlete, and musician. After graduating from Tufts School of Medicine, which has been coed since it was founded, she worked at Staten Island Children’s Hospital and received training in obstetrics before opening her own practice in Massachusetts.
Raiche suspended her medical career for a while and married Francois “Frank” Raiche circa 1904. Frank was an attorney, an aviation enthusiast, and a member of the New York Aeronautical Society. The couple moved to Mineola, New York, and began experimenting with building a biplane.
According to the Midway Village Museum in Wisconsin, the Raiches began assembling their first plane, made of silk and bamboo, in the living room of their house, using their grand piano as a work bench. In order to get it out, they removed the front of their house.
“Our ideas of airplanes were quite different then,” Raiche 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.”
On September 16, 1910, Raiche took off from the airway in Hempstead Plains, New York.
“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.”
In fact, Raiche’s fifth flight that day (each flight was short) resulted in a minor crash. One local paper described the aftermath of the crash like this: "She scrambled to her feet and before any one of the mechanics and others who had witnessed the fall of the biplane could reach her, she had shut off the engine and stopped the propeller. She calmly said she was not injured to those who ran to her aid, and then she directed the men to drag the wrecked plane back to the shed."
Over the next few weeks, Raiche made several more flights. She was awarded a gold-and-diamond medal inscribed "First Woman Aviator in America" by the Aeronautical Society of America.
Raiche and her husband later built and sold two more planes, but she eventually gave up flying and returned to practicing medicine. She went on to become one of the country's first female doctors specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, and gave birth to a daughter in 1914. She also worked with public health problems, such as tuberculosis, and children’s welfare, and served as president of the Orange County Medical Association in California.
Raiche died in her sleep, presumably of a heart attack, in 1932.