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Dr. Richard Upjohn Light

Richard Upjohn Light


Dr. Richard Upjohn Light was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1902. He completed high school education at Culver Military Academy in 1920 and entered Yale University where he received his undergraduate degree in 1924. He enrolled in the University of Michigan's medical school shortly thereafter, earning his medical degree in 1928.

Light had an early interest in aviation, having taken his first flight with a barnstormer over the Kalamazoo area in 1919. He then took flying lessons at Ypsilanti Air Field while attending medical school at U of M. Postponing his residency, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps for a year, qualifying as a pilot in 1929. He bought a small plane which he flew in his free time, flying to Panama and all over Mexico, becoming known as "the flying doctor."

By 1934, Light had determined to undertake an adventurous around-the-world flight. Through the State Department he obtained permission, which took six months, to fly over 28 foreign countries. With Yale friend Robert Wilson, Light took off from New Haven, Connecticut on August 20, 1934 in a single-engine, float-equipped Bellanca Skyrocket. Their flight would cover over 29,000 miles and take five months, ending in Long Island on January 24, 1935. Their route took them to Iceland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Iraq, Iran, India, Thailand, Malaya, Java, Borneo and the Philippines. Light took the opportunity to stop and observe important neurosurgical clinics along the way. Because of distance, they shipped the plane across the Pacific to Vancouver and flew on from there. Light would later say, "Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, had done it and I figured that I could also."

In 1937, Light and his then-wife, Mary, bought a new Bellanca monoplane powered by a 550 horsepower engine for a 35,000 mile, four-month flight over Central America, South America and Africa. Mary acted as a co-pilot, radio operator and photographer. They flew along the west coast of South America over the Andes to Rio de Janeiro, and then sailed to Cape Town, South Africa. From the air, they photographed the geography of Africa extensively, often flying repeatedly back to key sites to obtain the best possible photographs. Their plane was badly damaged in Corsica by a hanger collapse, and the journey ended there. Their photos and report were published by the American Geographical Society as a book entitled "Focus on Africa," which received high praise and was used in college courses for years.

Light retired from flying to concentrate on his medical career and civic improvement. He served as president of the American Geographical Society from 1947 to 1955. He passed away in 1994.

Dr. Richard Upjohn Light was enshrined into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame on May 19, 2012.

Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program