Dottie May Frazier, the USA’s first female scuba diving instructor and dive-shop owner as well as one of the first women to become a hardhat diver and dive-suit manufacturer, has died in California at the age of 99.
Frazier succeeded in making her name in the relentlessly macho diving world of the 1940s and ’50s, despite her gender and diminutive stature.
Born in Long Beach, California on 15 July, 1922 as Dorothy Adele Reider, she grew up spending much of her time out on the small sailing boat of her father Francis. She later said that he had decided to “turn me into the boy he never had”, giving her strict instructions to “learn something new“ every day of her life.
She could swim by the age of three and row a boat at six. At the same age Francis dropped a coffee pot off the boat into 5m of water and told her to hold her breath and retrieve it – which she did.
That was her first dive and by the time Francis gave her a home-made dive mask four years later she had already become a proficient freediver. As a teenager she soon become an accomplished spearfisher too, entering contests all along the California coast as the only female competitor. By the 1940s she was sharing her “skin-diving” skills by teaching others the art of breath-hold diving.
She was also good at repairing and tuning boat engines – throughout her life she reckoned she was able to “fix anything”.
Frazier had studied marine biology at college in hopes of becoming a scientist, but because entry to so many careers seemed closed to women – her attempts to join the police and Coastguard were also blocked – she trained in secretarial work. She didn’t take to office life, however, and soon switched to earning a living gutting fish.
During WW2 she was given a manual job at Douglas Aircraft – the only woman in a department of 40 – while continuing to spearfish to help feed her family.
After the war she learnt to dive using an aqualung in a class run by Los Angeles County, the first scuba certification programme in the USA. This was in the face of opposition from male staff and students, but by 1950 Frazier was a founder-member of the early scuba club Long Beach Neptunes.
In 1955 she again had to overcome male resistance to enrol on the LA County underwater instructors certification course. She not only qualified as the USA’s first female scuba instructor but achieved top honours.
After some four years as a scuba diver, Frazier enrolled to train and work as one of the first female commercial divers but gave up the role after two years, saying that although it was very lucrative and had allowed her to buy a house, hardhat equipment made her feel too restricted.
She worked at the Penguin Dive Shop before eventually buying the business, which she then ran for 15 years as the USA’s first female dive-shop owner. She also designed and developed one of the first ranges of women’s wetsuits, called Penguin suits, and later manufactured drysuits as well, supplying the US Navy and brands such as US Divers.
Frazier was married three times, widowed twice and had four sons, all of whom would become divers from an early age. After the birth of her third child she founded the club Aqua Families, for people who wanted to dive with their children.
An all-round adventurer, whether surfing, dredging for gold, spearfishing, boating or motorcycling, Frazier’s colourful life-story was later recorded in her autobiography Trailblazer: The Extraordinary Life of Diving Pioneer Dottie Frazier.
Her most frightening moment she has described as a stand-off with a great white shark while freediving – a problem she finally solved in typical fashion by swimming straight at the shark and scaring it off.
Frazier was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2000 and, at the age of 97, was awarded the US Historical Diving Society’s Diving Pioneer Award.
One of the few ambitions she left unfulfilled was to reach the age of 100, although she came within five months of her goal. She died in Long Beach, where she had lived all her life, on 8 February, survived by her husband Cyril May and their family.
Steve has been a scuba diver for 30 years and became editor of Diver magazine in 1996, following 10 years with BBC World Service and the 10 before that in motoring journalism.