Jeannette Ridlon was born in Chicago, Illinois on January 5, 1895, one of two identical twin girls. Her father, Dr. John Ridlon, was a well-known orthopedic surgeon. She earned Bachelors degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from Bryn Mawr College in 1918 and in 1919 a Masters Degree in Organic Chemistry from the University of Chicago. That year Jeannette married Jean Felix Piccard, an instructor at the University of Chicago (he was also one of two identical twins). She became her husband’s scientific partner and collaborator for the rest of their 44-year marriage. She received a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Minnesota in 1942. Jeannette Piccard was a consultant to the Director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston from 1964 and 1970. In 1975, Dr. Piccard was ordained as the first female Priest in the Episcopal Church.
Jeannette and Jean Felix moved to Switzerland after their marriage in 1919 to teach at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland for seven years. They returned to the United States in 1926 when Jean Felix accepted a post as director of research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he taught Jeannette how to pilot a balloon, and she received her pilot’s license in July 1934. Jeannette Piccard was one of the world’s first women balloonists and hoped to be the first woman in the stratosphere.
But before the Piccards could embark on their flight, they needed funding. Having backed Captain Albert Stevens’ Explorer I flight, which crashed on July 27, 1934, and preparing to back Explorer II, which launched on November 10, 1935, the National Geographic Society was not interested in supporting the Piccards’ 1934 flight. As Jeannette recalled, “The National Geographic Society would have nothing to do with sending a woman—a mother—in a balloon into danger.” Goodyear-Zeppelin and Dow Chemical, with whom Jean Piccard had worked on the first Century of Progress flight, were reluctant to support the flight. Dow Chemical asked the Piccards to take the company logo off the gondola and not use the trade name “Dowmetal” in their publicity.
Finally, the Piccards secured enough funds for an ascent and on October 23, 1934. Jeannette Piccard piloted a balloon to an altitude of 57,579 feet, as the first woman in the stratosphere. Accompanying her on the flight was her husband, Jean Piccard and a pet turtle. The flight originated from Dearborn, Michigan and terminated near Cadiz, Ohio.
As the first woman to fly to the stratosphere, Jeannette Piccard received much publicity. Many still felt that a mother should not be taking such risks. When she was asked if she was afraid, she replied, “Even if one were afraid to die, there is so much of interest in a stratosphere trip that one does not have time to be afraid. It is too absorbing, too interesting.” Asked repeatedly by the press if she would do it again, Jeannette replied, “Oh, just give me a chance,” but she never had the opportunity.
After Jean Felix died in 1963, Jeannette became a consultant with NASA, and some there said she was the first woman in space, as “Physiological Space” was considered to begin around 45,000 to 50,000 feet. This claim was generally dropped after the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman ever to orbit the Earth later that year. At the 1975 Federation Aeronautical International conference in Mexico City, one of Piccard’s sons met the world’s first female cosmonaut. He told her “Comrade Tereshkova when I told my mother I was perhaps going to meet you. She asked me to greet you.” Tereshkova said, “Thank you, very much.” Mr. Piccard replied, “Perhaps you don’t know who my mother is. My mother is Jeannette Piccard, who piloted a balloon to 57,000 feet in 1934, more than two miles into Physiological Space. And she wanted me to congratulate you on your marvelous achievement, and on behalf of all the women in America to welcome you to Space.” Tereshkova said, “I know very well who your mother is. And I am most appreciative of her good wishes, and please give her all my love.”
Jeannette Ridlon Piccard died in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 17, 1981, at the age of eighty-six.