The Diva and the Doctor God: Letters from Sarah Bernhardt to Doctor Samuel Pozzi

de Costa, CarolineMiller, Francesca

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Aug-23-2013
  • Last revised: Aug-04-2013


The great French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) conducted an affair with her doctor, gynecologist Samuel Pozzi (1846-1918) in the decade before he married. They remained friends, and she always called him her Docteur Dieu (doctor god).

The handsome physician was a leading light in French gynecology and in the Paris arts community. Clad in his red dressing gown, Pozzi was the subject of John Singer Sargent's wonderful portrait (1881), which spawned erotic legends about him.

At first happy, Pozzi’s marriage degenerated into coldness, but his wife would not grant him a divorce. He then established a long-standing, public relationship with Emma Fischhof. During the Dreyfus affair, which unmasked the horror of entrenched anti-Semitism in France, physician and actress both fought against the ill treatment of the Jewish officer.

In 1915 and at Sarah’s insistence, Pozzi amputated her painful leg. Three years later, he was shot and killed by a disgruntled and delusional patient who blamed him for a minor illness.



Based on a previously unknown series of letters, this engaging history evokes a fascinating period of French social, political, and cultural history, including two wars and the Dreyfus affair.

From a medical history perspective, Pozzi’s career takes off in during the surgical innovation that followed the relatively recent discoveries of anesthesia (1840s) and antisepsis (1860s). Many aspects of Pozzi’s relationships with his patients, his family and his colleagues will raise eyebrows for today’s readers; however, it is clear that the man was widely admired by patients and colleagues in his own time.

This readable book contains interesting details of gynecology’s struggle for recognition within the context of gender discrimination. The authors insist slightly too much on Pozzi’s impact on the “new” field of gynecology, which was already an established branch of medicine well before he was born. But he was an enthusiastic observer of the changes around him, and his textbook was widely used in Europe and North America. 

One of the authors is an Australian gynecologist who has made many contributions to the popular understanding of women’s health. 



Place Published

United States



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