He lived during the Beautiful Epoch … and he was a beauty from that era.
« I am very sorry, dear friend, to spoil your evening in this way, but I have at least one bullet in my stomach, » said the note received by Dr. Thierry de Martel one night in the Parisian summer of 1918.
He immediately went to attend to the sender, who requested that they not put him to sleep during the operation. After all, he was one of the mostexperts in that kind of wounds and wanted to supervise the intervention.
It was called Samuel-Jean Pozzi, and he was a doctor so famous that postcards with his portrait were sold in the French streets.
But neither Martel’s expertise nor Pozzi’s accumulated experience as a volunteer with the medical corps in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and in the First World War from 1914 to that day managed to save him.
« With admirable lucidity, he guided the efforts of his fellow surgeons and it seemed that success was assured when a sudden hemorrhage took him within minutes, » the Paris Society of Surgeons said the following day.
Hours before his death, he had received a former patient in his office who wrongly accused him of having rendered him impotent for having treated him for a varicocele.
Maurice Machu had come to demand that he return his manhood. That or death.
« A beautiful work of art »
Upon giving the news, the Le Figaro newspaper described Pozzi as « a sincere lover of both science and art, a kind of beautiful work of art in itself and a magnificent specimen of our race. »
His friend, the poet, patron, famous dandy and Count Robert de Montesquiou, wrote:
« For someone as devoted as I am to the aristocratic pleasure of upsetting others, it was a lesson to witness the constant smile of a man who knew how to take advantage of it so well. Pozzi had an art of pleasing that no one could match. »
Robert de Montesquiou was an antagonistic character who inspired novel characters, including, apparently, the Baron de Charlus from « In search of lost time » by Marcel Proust.
« My pain is very deep « , expressed Marcel Proust, author of « In search of lost time ».
« I think of his goodness, his intelligence, his talent, his beauty, how I have constantly worshiped him … ».
Like them, many others deeply regretted his absence.
The man in the red robe
With the passage of time, his celebrity was fading.
But in 1990, the gallery at the Armand Hammer museum in Los Angeles (USA) exposed a painting that had been hidden from public view for more than a century because critics in the late 19th century found it vulgar.
This time, the public fell in love by Dr Pozzi Chez Lui (« Doctor Pozzi at home »).
Sargent portrayed it in 1881, but due to criticism the painting remained in Pozzi’s house, and then hung in another Paris apartment until 1990.
It was the work of the American painter John Singer Sargent, considered the most successful portrait painter of his generation.
Sargent had described the subject of his painting as « a very bright creature« in a letter he sent to the great British-American novelist Henry James in 1885.
But who was that handsome man in a long crimson robe, the one who dazzled these and so many other lights of the Belle Époque?
Friend and lover
For Sarah Bernhardt, the golden voice of the French theater and one of the best actresses of all time, she was initially his lover, and always his friend and doctor.
Someone whom he loved with passion.
« I love you with all the vital and intellectual force of my being, and nothing could change this feeling, greater than Friendship, more divine than Love« he said in one of the many letters he wrote to her during their long relationship.
She called him « Doctor God ». Others referred to him as « the doctor love ». And it was widely known as a friend of women.
The perfect man? Luckily not; perfection always runs the risk of being bland or collapsing at the slightest flaw.
Universally loved? Almost, but not quite.
Unfaithful and freethinker
Even if as a rule women adored him, the exception were those of their home.
Neither his wife, the heir to a railroad tycoon Therese Loth-Cazalis, nor his mother-in-law, who lived with them, nor his daughter, the poet, narrator and diarist Catherine, held him in high esteem.
His long list of romances and extramarital affairs did not help.
And although was widely admiredThe antidreyfusards held a deep grudge against him.
For Pozzi, « chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance ».
Not only did he side with the writer Émile Zola in defense of the victim of anti-Semitism, but he did not hesitate to rush to assist Captain Alfred Dreyfus when the far-right journalist Louis-Anthelme Grégori shot him in a public act.
« Only a feeling moves me, I just want the light to shine, and I implore it in the name of humanity, » wrote Émile Zola in his plea for Captain Alfred Dreyfus, in the form of an open letter to the President of France.
But despite these detractors, few have been fortunate enough to be portrayed – literally and figuratively – as flatteringly as Pozzi.
And it is that in addition to his appearance, charm and style, which ensured instant social success, his professional resume, although often relegated by the force of his personality, was impressive.
What is sometimes forgotten
Pozzi was, first of all, the « father of French gynecology », and his clinical practice and meticulous research were an important factor in establishing gynecology as an independent medical specialty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
With his « Treatise on clinical and operational gynecology » published in 1890 and translated into six languages, it became famous in the world of medicine.
In it, unlike other similar texts, it established guidelines for the first time for make the woman feel comfortable during exams gynecological, a sign of Pozzi’s devotion to women.
Those who knew him admired him for his warmth, generosity and respect for women from all walks of life, from the aristocrats who came to his office in the elegant Place Vendôme, to those he treated in the public hospitals where he worked.
In his treatise, in addition, he devoted two chapters to cancer, a disease that in the 19th century was female, since it killed three times more women than men, and that in most cases affected the uterus and breasts.
His approach to treatment influenced physicians for almost half a century.
The dissertation of his doctorate made him deserving of the Gold Medal of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris in 1872. Later, his thesis made him deserving of the title of university professor when he was just 29 years old, and he stood out as a notable educator.
But it was not the first time that one of his writings attracted attention: in 1874, his translation into French together with his colleague René Benoit of Charles Darwin’s « Expressions of Emotion in Humans and Animals » was critically acclaimed.
They followed numerous scientific articles and books shorter; upon his death, his medical publications numbered more than 400, which dealt not only with gynecological topics but also studies on abdominal surgery, in which he also stood out, carrying out the first successful gastroenterostomy in France.
Incidentally, he invented several instruments that bear his name, including forceps, hemostats and syringes to disinfect the vagina.
As the surgical director of a city public hospital, he saved countless lives by bringing innovations in antiseptics and anesthesia to Paris.
When studying medicine, he was one of the pupils of the neurologist Paul Broca and being his assistant he worked in neurology, comparative anatomy and anthropology.
The latter would become a passion that would lead him to travel through North Africa and South America, collecting antiques, and to be president of the French Anthropological Society in 1888.
To make matters worse, he found time to serve as senator from his native Bergerac, in southwestern France, for three years since 1898.
More than a doctor: politician, educator, patron, antique collector, inventor …
Pozzi was also a knowledgeable and patron of the arts, who moved as easily in the world of painters, actors and writers as he did within the walls of the hospital.
And since he was convinced that art could help heal, he invited artists to paint those walls, among them Georges Clairin, whose work La santé rendue aux malades (« Health returned to the sick ») shows, embodying health, Sarah Bernhardt, one of the most important women in Pozzi’s life.
He called her « divine Sarah » and met her in 1869, when he was a student and she was already a well-known actress.
She was one of several refined and educated women with whom the « doctor love » forged sincere and lasting friendships, among them the poet of German origin Louise Ackermann who, being 32 years older than him, resigned herself to having a platonic relationship, although he dedicated the erotic poem « A man » to him.
By the early 1870s, her name was linked to some of the brightest women in Parisian societylike Geneviève Halévy, the widow of the composer Georges Bizet, and the literary critic and expert in Asian art Judith Gautier, the muse of the German composer, poet, playwright Richard Wagner.
Actress Gabrielle Réjane, who together with Bernhardt served as a model for actress Berma’s character in Marcel Proust’s novel « In Search of Lost Time », was one of Pozzi’s lovers after he was married.
In 1879, the charming friend of women married, apparently in love. But almost from the beginning, their relationship became bitter, largely because Therese insisted that their dominant mother live with them.
Although they had three children, their marriage was never happy.
Pozzi did not resign himself to living without love, he had several affairs with more splendid women, until he met Emma Sedelmeyer Fischhof.
Daughter of an art dealer and wife of a horse breeder, Emma was a beautiful and educated woman who became his lover in 1890.
He wanted to marry her, but his wife refused to grant her a divorce.
However, his beloved Emma remainedyour partner for the rest of your life.
It was to her that two years before that fateful summer night of 1918 he left his last will written in verse:
« My dear, do not summon any priest to my deathbed
Do not leave any chalice or sacred host
He would tell me without a doubt, and I could believe him,
That I was wrong to love you more than I loveand bye«
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