Jeannette Piccard, SM’19 (18951981)

A “pioneer of the skies”


By Jason Kelly
Photography courtesy Getty Images

Jeannette Piccard, left, and her husband, Jean, center, took ballooning to new heights.

Before dawn on October 23, 1934, about 45,000 people gathered at Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan, to see Jeannette Piccard, SM’19, attempt to become the first woman in the stratosphere. In an enclosed magnesium-alloy gondola under an undulating 600,000-cubic-foot hydrogen balloon, she and her husband, Swiss chemist and engineer Jean Piccard, floated away from the waving crowd. “What a wonderful moment that was,” Jeannette Piccard wrote in the next day’s New York Times. That moment almost never happened.

Jean Piccard had planned a previous stratosphere attempt with the same balloon, called the Century of Progress, at Chicago’s 1933 world’s fair. After conflicts with the fair’s executives, he resigned as in-flight scientific observer. Navy pilot Thomas G. W. Settle made an aborted ascent from Soldier Field and months later flew the Century of Progress to an international-record altitude of 61,237 feet, the first US flight into the stratosphere. In exchange for Piccard forsaking his place on board, the organizers had agreed to give him the balloon after the Settle flights. With it, the Piccards pursued their own mission.

First, though, Jeannette Piccard had to complete both night and day solo balloon flights—“an adventurous feminine pioneer of the skies,” the Associated Press dubbed her—becoming the first female balloonist to earn a National Aeronautic Association license. The license permitted her to pilot the stratosphere expedition, while her husband would focus on scientific observations, but the idea of a woman at the controls concerned potential sponsors.

Proceeds from commemorative stamps and souvenir programs that Jeannette Piccard designed and sold, and support from Grigsby-Grunow radio and the People’s Outfitting Company department store, sufficed to fund the flight. The National Geographic Society, which had sponsored similar voyages, refused the Piccards. Goodyear and Dow Chemical also withheld assistance, calling the flight too risky for a woman and a mother of eight- and ten-year-old boys.

“Men were paid more, and they were willing to send a husband and father,” says their granddaughter Rev. Kathryn Piccard, who, in later years, scoffed with her grandmother at the demeaning view of women the elder Piccard so often faced. “We condescended to their condescension.”

Sometimes the only option was to endure it. More than three decades after her stratosphere flight, while working as a NASA consultant, Piccard narrated a film about the expedition. After her voiceover, an interviewer read from her preflight checklist, which included the task “wipe windows.” He smiled at her and said, “Everything changes but the eternally feminine.”

“Oh, there was nothing feminine about that,” Piccard replied. “That’s a safety engineer. You don’t take off with dirty windows or windows that will frost up.”

The Piccards were safety conscious—their precautions on the Century of Progress included a ring to eliminate pleats as gas expanded the balloon and a short-wave radio to communicate with the car that would attempt to follow their course. Although they understood the dangers inherent in their quest, Jeannette was glib about it: “If there’s some accident, don’t bother developing the film. The chemicals from our decomposing bodies will be enough.”

In flight there were a few brief frightening moments. Winds jostled the gondola at low altitude, but the Piccards dropped ballast and climbed to calmer air and sunshine above the clouds. Suddenly, through the top window, Jeannette Piccard saw the balloon “sway violently.” For several minutes she held and released the valve rope while hearing the thwack of material tossed about in what she described as a “gale” above them, but the threat soon passed. “From then on,” she wrote, “everything was smooth sailing.”

Most of Piccard’s life had not been so smooth. Her twin sister, Beatrice, died at age three from burns suffered while playing with a toy stove, an accident Piccard witnessed. Two other sisters also died young. Kathryn Piccard believes those tragedies gave her grandmother posttraumatic stress disorder—undiagnosed and untreated at the turn of the 20th century—that forever affected her: “She could be nasty and sometimes manipulative.”
A focus on getting her own way might have served Piccard in overcoming social constraints. Before she earned her master’s in organic chemistry and became a balloonist, she had an aspiration even more outrageous for a young woman of her time: she wanted to be an Episcopal priest.

Although she wouldn’t achieve that goal for decades, spiritual thoughts permeated Piccard’s scientific pursuits. The view from beneath the partially inflated stratosphere balloon, soaring 175 feet over her head, reminded her of “a magnificent cathedral.” And flying miles high at the whim of the wind was a transcendent experience: “You feel like part of the air. You almost feel like part of eternity.”

Looking down onto a wall-to-wall carpet of clouds, Piccard felt disconnected from the earth for a more basic reason. She had no idea what direction they were traveling, or how fast. She had almost no sensation that they were moving at all. “Were we traveling two miles an hour or 200? Were we going east or north or south? Were we over Ontario, or Lake Erie, or already over the ocean?” she recounted in the Times.

After four hours in the air, that uncertainty prompted a slow descent from their peak at 57,579 feet, almost 11 miles high. For almost three hours, Piccard held a valve open for 90 seconds at regular intervals to bring the balloon gradually back to earth. Below the clouds it became difficult to maintain a steady pace. Even when they unloaded the last of their ballast, the drop remained too rapid to avoid a cluster of trees, and the gondola came to rest in an elm. In a history of scientific ballooning, National Air and Space Museum curator David DeVorkin wrote that Piccard made “unplanned and impulsive maneuvers” at the controls and that the flight records were incomplete.

They landed near Cadiz, Ohio, eight hours after takeoff, 300 miles from their Dearborn departure, having flown across Lake Erie. Three decades later Piccard reflected, “We are the only people in the 1930s to make a stratosphere flight through the clouds, landed through clouds, and lived to tell the tale.” At the time, though, she overlooked the significance of the accomplishment, expressing her disappointment in the Times: “My most vivid sensation with regard to this flight is one of shame.”

Her regret came from the fact that the balloon had become tangled in the elm’s branches, ripping and sending the gondola free-falling 15 to 20 feet. Looking at “the torn fragments of our once beautiful balloon” spoiled Piccard’s experience.

It would have been unlike her to be satisfied with the pioneering achievement alone. Born in 1895 to Emily and John Ridlon, a Northwestern University orthopedic surgeon, she always envisioned a life beyond the contemporary restrictions on women. At age 11, her mother asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. “When I said I wanted to be a priest, poor darling, she burst into tears and ran out of the room,” Piccard said. “That was the only time I saw my Victorian mother run.”

Science also interested her, and her father encouraged her academic pursuits. As a philosophy and psychology student at Bryn Mawr College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1918, she wrote an essay exploring whether women should be Anglican priests.

At Chicago Jean Piccard was among her instructors. They married soon after she earned her master’s degree and moved to her husband’s native Switzerland, returning to the United States in 1926 when he accepted a position at MIT.

Not long afterward, Jean Piccard’s twin brother, Auguste, became an international celebrity for his ballooning accomplishments; in 1931 and 1932 he made stratosphere flights in Belgium, then began planning a similar attempt in the United States. When he received funding for another flight in Belgium, Auguste returned to Europe, and Jean stepped into his long shadow.

In 1936 Jean joined the University of Minnesota’s aeronautical-engineering department, where he remained until his retirement. Jeannette earned an education doctorate there in 1942, and after her husband’s 1963 death, she promoted the space program for seven years as a NASA consultant.

Yet her desire to be an Episcopal priest still tugged at her. Discrimination had kept Piccard from that calling for decades, which might have been for the best, Kathryn Piccard says: “She would not have been a good priest had she been ordained at the same time as the men her age. She needed more time to mature emotionally and spiritually.”

Church restrictions gave her no choice but to wait. Women deacons were approved in 1970—she became one a year later—but female priests remained a contentious issue. In 1972 Piccard enrolled at Manhattan’s General Theological Seminary, at age 77, intent on becoming a priest if the church ever permitted it.

As it turned out, she didn’t wait for permission. In 1974 Piccard was the first woman ordained a priest, part of a group known as the “Philadelphia 11,” in an “irregular” ceremony that defied church doctrine. In 1976 the Episcopal general convention officially sanctioned women priests. Piccard served in St. Paul, Minnesota, until 1981, when she died of cancer at 86, the end of an adventurous life spent trying to escape the restrictions of society—and gravity—with a wry realism about earthly limitations.

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