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Sarah Bernhardt

Epilogue: The Missing Leg

“I don’t want to suffer as I have been for the past few years. So you choose: either I kill myself or I have my leg cut off.” -- Sarah Bernhardt

There is a postscript in the life of Sarah Bernhardt. Sarah had undergone the amputation of her right leg above the knee on February 22, 1915 in Bordeaux, France. She supposedly sang “La Marseillaise” as she went into unconsciousness from the anesthetic. The surgery was successful, though by today’s standards it would never have had to occur, and Sarah returned in eight months to the stage in La Dame aux Camelias, albeit in a wheelchair, as she found the wooden leg cumbersome and painful. She was fondly referred to after this as “Mere la chaise,” in a humorous spin on the cemetery where she would eventually rest. She would live for another eight years, still successfully performing on stage and film until her death, which resulted from kidney failure.

As documented in The New York Times on February 2, 2009, Sarah’s leg has been rediscovered at the Bordeaux University, in a storeroom with other medical oddities. It was apparently preserved in formaldehyde and was stored away, undoubtedly because of her fame at the time of the surgery. It was known at the time of the amputation that the limb was being saved, but it had been forgotten over the years and stored away, collecting dust with the other medical abnormalities. As stated by Pro. Manuel Tunon de Lara, president of the Science and Health facility at Bordeaux, “We never lost the leg. It was just forgotten. I have instructed a colleague to clean it up and prepare to put it on display. At the moment it is not in very good condition.” As the leg was in an unmarked container, a DNA analysis will be conducted to ascertain the certainty of its former owner with genetic material from Sarah Bernhardt’s descendents. So for those who feel a need to connect with the “Divine Sarah,” they may soon be able to view the former limb of the world’s most famous actress.


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