Suzanne Noel

Biography of Suzanne Gros Noël, a pioneer of plastic surgery in France, was a very active feminist. She did not hesitate to apply her knowledge to save Jews from Nazi extermination.

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A pioneer of plastic surgery, she helped Jews fleeing the Gestapo. She hardened by operating on wounded from World War I. From the operating room, she fought for the female vote and tried to do justice with the scalpel.

At the same time, a humble catholic Polish nurse, Irena Sendlerowa, managed to hide and save more than 1,000 Jewish children in Warsaw.

Childhood and family of Suzanne Gros

Suzanne Gros Noël was born on January 8, 1877, in Laon, a beautiful city located in the north of France. She was the daughter of very wealthy parents.

Her father died of tuberculosis when she was just 6 years old.

Her three brothers also died very soon. She also had a sister who died at birth.

Laon France
Laon is the capital city of Aisne northern France, between Saint-Quentin and Reims. Credit: web informationfrance.com

Suzanne Nöel’s marriage and training

In 1896, when she was just 19 years old, she married Henri Pertat, a dermatologist, recently graduated.

As was the custom, she had to do housework.

She entertained herself by playing bridge with friends and going to concerts with her husband.

It was what was expected of a bourgeois born in Laon, who had grown up learning to sew and paint.

Suzanne missed her mother and in 1905 began studying medicine.

She dreamed of working with her husband.

Henri Pertat helped her finish high school and encouraged her to start medicine, a career that ended with the fourth best grade in her class.

To enroll in the School of Medicine, it was necessary for her husband to do it for her.

Just like when she had to miss exams due to illness, it was Henri Pertat who had to write the supporting documents.

Those were the rules laid down in the Civil Code, dating from the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Beginning of her career as a cosmetic surgeon

In 1909, she was admitted as a physician’s assistant to the Department of Dermatology, at the Saint-Louis Hospital, directed by Professor Brocq.

There she was able to observe how one of the teachers hid a scar in the hair of a patient and in the folds of her skin.

The following year, Professor Brocq allowed her to perform her first operation.

The volunteer patient was a lab worker whose face had been scorched by sulfuric acid.

Suzanne realized that this was the type of surgery she wanted to do, because the result radically changed people’s lives.

In 1911, she left the apartment she shared with her husband Henri, as they no longer wanted to share their lives.

She went with her daughter Jacqueline to an apartment located in the Montmartre district.

Yet every afternoon Suzanne met him at the office.

In 1912, she passed the exams of the “Internat des Hospitaux de Paris“.

A year earlier, in 1911, the great French dramatic actress, Sarah Bernhardt, born in 1844, returned to Paris after a trip; all her admirers found that Bernhardt had rejuvenated quite a bit during her absence.

Sarah Bernhart
The famous actress Sarah Bernhardt in August 1911. Credit: Wikimedia. Bain Collection Library

On June 5, 1912, out of curiosity, Suzanne dared to call the Sarah Bernhardt’s door. She wanted to get a closer look at her face.

Sarah Bernhardt did not hesitate to explain how a Chicago surgeon had smoothed out her wrinkles, without altering the lower part of her face.

Suzanne Nöel begins her medical specialty

Suzanne began to experiment on herself, pinching her skin to see if she could improve it with this little trick.

Later she decided to experiment with anesthetized rabbits.

During 1913, she approved “assistantships” in all medical specialties, but her main interest was in Dermatology.

Henri Pertat was engaged to another woman and Suzanne was alone with her daughter Jacqueline.

The war wounded needed cosmetic surgery

In September 1914, the First World War had begun and André Pertat was sent to one of the hospitals on the battlefront.

Up to 15,000 men had face, skull and jaw amputations. They were known as “broken mouths“, and the French Government created special services for oral-maxillo-facial prosthesis and restoration of the face.

Professor Morestin was Suzanne’s main instructor.

Both stopped cosmetic facelifts and began to rebuild their noses, jaws and ears.

The wounded soldiers were left in the best possible condition before returning to their families.

Suzanne Noel
Portrait of Suzanne Noël, on loan from the Soroptimist Club in Paris. Credit: web de elpais.com

Most hospitals did not want to have a doctor who specializes in cosmetic surgery.

In the Faculty where she studied, they still defined cosmetic surgery as: “A useless practice, for flirtatious ones.”

Suzanne Nöel opened her own medical practice

So, she decided to establish a clinic in her own home.

She returned to her ex-husband’s apartment. Her mother, who had not saved the means for her to have a careful education, helped her financially.

Every day more wounded came to the clinic. Suzanne wrote to all of Henri’s patients to reassure them that she would replace him in his absence.

She did it out of patriotism and also because she needed financial means to live: Jacqueline, her mother and she herself.

After the war, she was limited to minor surgeries such as face lifts and eyelid corrections.

She became famous for what she called a “little operation.”

This was a technique in which she made small invisible incisions, along the hairline, to stitch up just a little skin; enough to produce tension, without having to remove any underlying tissue.

At the end of 1918, Henri Pertat died.

Since he had been exposed to mustard gas in 1915, his health had steadily deteriorated.

Suzanne encouraged André Noël so that, with the research that she had carried out, he presented his final thesis.

She hadn’t had time to finish, but if André graduated, she could practice under his authority and keep the cabinet.

Suzanne Gros married André Nöel

In October 1919, André and Suzanne married and moved to a new office, located just a few steps from the Champs-Elysées.

Champs Elisees
The Champs Elysees is the main avenue in Paris. It measures 1,910 meters in length, and runs from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. Credit: Wikipedia

Everything went well in this new home-office: André Noël had his own space where he received mainly patients with syphilis.

Suzanne practiced small outpatient cosmetic surgeries. Jacqueline dreamed of being a composer and practiced violin, waiting to enter the Conservatory.

On January 6, 1922, little Jacqueline died of the Spanish flu.

She had just been accepted into the Conservatory. Suzanne, her mother and André were deeply affected.

André Noël fell into a depression, without the desire to work, he felt hated by his colleagues and found everything wrong.

Finally, on August 6, 1924, André put an end to his life, throwing himself into the river Seine, before the eyes of Suzanne who was unable to hold him back.

Once he was pulled out of the water, it was impossible to revive him.

Within a few months, Suzanne had lost Jacqueline and her husband.

Furthermore, without André’s patronage, Suzanne could no longer practice medicine.

Faced with harassment by journalists, photographers and André’s creditors, she decided to escape to Laon, taking refuge in her mother’s house.

Suzanne Nöel changed her name to Suzanne Gros

In April 1925, she presented her thesis on “The extension of the big toe, of peripheral origin“.

She signed it with her maiden name: Suzanne Gros.

From then on, she was able to work on her own. Finally, she no longer had to depend on anyone for her needs.

Her clients came to the cabinet, with the fashion and beauty magazines in order to propose “arrangements”.

They all wanted to look young and thin, have a small chest and nice legs.

At the request of the clientele, she specialized in reshaping the breasts, slimming the buttocks, abdomen, legs and arms.

She explained to them that it was so much so that their husbands would find them beautiful, as so that they themselves would feel more attractive.

Sizanne surgeon
Suzanne practiced cosmetic surgery for eye correction. Credit: Masson et Editeurs

It affected her to receive people who had not been hired or who had been fired because they did not look young.

Women who had lost their man in the war and who could only rely on themselves to support their families.

Suzanne Gros did her job to help them gain independence.

She knew that that way they would achieve equality with men.

In many cases, she didn’t care that they couldn’t pay her. To the richest she charged a little more and, fixed matter.

Unlike some prestigious doctors who were in favor of a large operation, she preferred to intervene three times.

In this way, her patient could lead a normal life sooner.

Her prestige and solidarity grew

Her clinic began to receive famous people, women from the world of fashion and the European aristocracy.

Suzanne Gros’s feminism grew in parallel with her professional career.

She constantly claimed that women were not full citizens.

She organized a demonstration to encourage working women not to pay taxes.

This tax strike was justified by saying that the State did not recognize any rights for women.

If there were no equal rights, there was also no obligation to pay taxes like men.

The reaction of friends and family when seeing her combine her work as a plastic surgeon with the defense of women’s rights, was negative and they clearly told her that she was crazy.

Suzanne saw cosmetic surgery as a way to help her patients become socially and financially emancipated. First of all she was a feminist,

Suzanne Nöel joined the Soroptimist club

Her leadership in the “tax strike” attracted the attention of a Club founded in Oakland, California, in 1921.

It was called “Soroptimist” and it started with 80 women.

The purpose of the Soroptimist organization was to create a broad network of women with representation from various occupations, to foster a spirit of service and to encourage high ethical standards in business and the professions.

In October 1923, Suzanne Gros received a visit from Stuart Morrow, representing the Soroptimist, to ask her to promote the creation of this Club in Paris.

The following year, in October 1924, Dr. Suzanne Gros Noël founded the first Soroptimist Club in Europe in Paris.

The first meeting of the Club was attended by: a woman hospital doctor, a representative of the Radical Socialist Party, two famous poets, a journalist, a lawyer, an activist, an actress and a composer.

All of them, chosen among her friends and patients.

This first meeting was held at the Rotary Club, where they did not have the support of male members.

Husbands frowned upon the weekly lunches these women organized without them.

There was so much enthusiasm and such a level of commitment among Club members that soon Soroptimist had clubs in ten other European capitals.

The start of the Soroptimist Club was the beginning of a lonely and hyperactive life for Suzanne.

In 1926 she published a book, unique in its kind: “Cosmetic surgery.”

In it she recounts the techniques learned, her successes, but also her mistakes. She wrote it to share her knowledge and to give status and prestige to cosmetic surgery.

In 1930 the European Soroptimist Federation was formed. Suzanne Nöel was the first president.

Today, the European Federation has more than 34,000 members in some 1,200 clubs in 59 countries.

In the spring of 1936, Suzanne Noël lost her sight for several months.

She was operated on for cataracts by the same doctor who had treated Claude Monet in 1923.

Although she regained her vision, it was no longer possible for her to continue operating at the same rate as before.

She gave up her private practice at home and moved to the Clinique des Bluets in Paris.

Suzanne Nöel during the Nazi occupation of Paris

However, during the occupation of Paris by Nazi troops, she resumed her work.

But, she stopped liposuction and facelifts; Instead, she devoted herself to performing rhinoplasty (nose surgery) on Jews fleeing the Gestapo.

Also small operations to help members of the resistance who needed a transformation when they were persecuted.

After the war, she gave great generosity and dedication to the survivors.

She put her hands at the service of the scars, burns and consequences that the concentration camps had left on their bodies.

Acknowledgments to Suzanne Nöel

She was awarded the Foreign Office Legion of Honor for being a “doctor of unusual abilities.”

This recognition was a good springboard for all the female surgeons who were struggling to gain support in the field of medicine.

Suzanne Noël died in 1954.

The Soroptimist Club remembers her each year by awarding financial aid to cover the cost of continuing education for women who are interested in plastic and reconstructive surgery.

In the universities, however, they hardly name her.

A stamp that the French postal service dedicated to her in January 1955 are the only visible traces of a doctor who tried to do justice with the scalpel.

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