Anne Story: An Unknown From the Seine

by Michael Brady on May 3, 2011

If you’ve ever taken a first-aid course, you may recall her face, as most likely you have kissed her likeness. Resusci Anne, as she now is known, is a famed mannequin, used round the world to teach mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Reproduction of original death mask by Lorenzi. Photo by M. Lorenzi

Her creation for that role came about in the late 1950s when an American doctor met a Norwegian doctor at an international conference on anesthesia held in Norway. Dr. Peter Safar, the American, was one of the pioneers of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He believed that people could best be taught the technique by practicing on a mannequin. Dr. Bjørn Lind, the Norwegian, was on the staff of a hospital in Stavanger and knew Åsmund Lærdal, a local toymaker whose biggest seller had been a doll named Anne. Lærdal also made plastic imitation wounds for use in teaching first-aid skills. Might he take Anne into first-aid?

Lærdal agreed immediately, as he knew the value of resuscitation from having once rescued his two-year-old son from drowning. Development took two years. The mannequin was given a head that could be turned and had a chest that would rise as it was inflated. He chose to make its face female, as he feared that men might be reluctant to kiss a male image. He knew and had been moved by the story of the death mask of an unknown young woman whose body had been fished out of the Seine River at Quai du Louvre in Paris in the late 1880s. Her features were beautiful and serene but not sexy, perfect for the purpose. He kept the name of his popular doll and named the mannequin Rescusci Anne.

The mannequin quickly became the method of choice in teaching resuscitation in Norway, then throughout Europe and then in the USA and round the globe. With time, she gained new talents, including submitting to chest compression to simulate maintenance of blood flow to the brain. She became the standard means of teaching cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), as well as artificial respiration. To date, some 300 million people have put their lips to hers and have pressed her chest, making her the world’s most kissed and most touched female.

The identity of the original drowned woman of the Seine will never be known; hence her name in French, L’Inconnue de la Seine (“The Unknown of the Seine”). Likewise, why she drowned will remain her secret. Like rivers flowing through other big cities, the Seine is a watery dump for the corpses of murdered people and a magnet for suicides. There were no blemishes on her body, so apparently she died by her own hand, perhaps to escape the pangs of unrequited love or hopeless poverty. Why the staff at the Paris morgue chose to have a modeler take a death mask from her corpse also is unknown, though her enduring appeal is a clue to their motivation. Moreover, there’s no record of what led to copies of her white plaster death mask being made and sold across Paris and then across Europe, to hang in the studios and homes.

The story of L’Inconnue de la Seine and her hauntingly beautiful death mask inspired poets and writers. Among them were Albert Camus, who described her as the “drowned Mona Lisa” and Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1934 poem L’Inconnue de la Seine in part reflects the Russian myth of Rusalka, the water nymph that inspired Dvorák’s opera by that name. Avant-garde photographer Man Ray illustrated Aurélien, the 1944 novel by surrealist Louis Aragon, with 15 photographic interpretations of L’Inconnue de la Seine. Paradoxically, the unknown woman of the Seine is among the world’s most known.

Even the mask that led to her fame remains a mystery. The Lorenzi family model makers on the Left Bank, where the modeler for the original death mask is said to have been based, are still in business, though now in a suburb southeast of the city. They believe that the smooth skin and rounded cheeks of the mask indicate that it was made from a living, not drowned woman. One explanation might be that the teenager who sat for the mask did commit suicide in the Seine, but years after the mask was made. But she might also have gone on to a happy life, unaware that an image of her teenage self would one day be known the world over.

More Info
Wikipedia has “L’Inconnue de la Seine” entries in English and in French. Details of the Resusci Anne mannequin are on the Laerdal Medical website with pages selectable in English and other major languages. Copies of the original death mask made by Lorenzi are listed in the company’s catalogue online (in French only). Full-size masks (catalog no. 943) cost € 130 plus postage, and small replicas, about 6 inches high (catalog no. 944), cost € 107 including postage. (The exchange rate at press time is about  €1 = $1.33.)

M. Michael Brady is MG’s regular Dateline: Europe columnist. He lives in Norway and works as a translator.

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