Many call her Resusci Anne, some call her L'Inconnue de la Seine ("The Unknown Woman of the Seine"), but most would know her as CPR Annie.

CPR Annie is the mannequin which 300 million people around the world have learned CPR on but little do they know, that her face was based off a real Frenchwoman - or so it goes. The story of the 19th century behind the model has been told countless times, in different ways and versions, but the truth lies in a small workshop in the busy Parisian suburb of Arcueil.

The last of its kind, the Lorenzi workshop has stood strong since the 1870s, with the mouleurs, or cast-makers, priding themselves on passed-down techniques from generations ago to create figurines, busts and statues. Upstairs, in a room above the workshop in a narrow attic, life and death masks of poets and artists, politicians and revolutionaries: Napoleon, Verlaine, Victor Hugo, Beethoven, and many others, hold pieces of history.

The face of the CPR mannequin carries a mystery that many have tried to solve.
The face of the CPR mannequin carries a mystery that many have tried to solve.

The tragic story of L'Inconnue de la Seine

Yet, at Lorenzi's, the best-seller is the mask of a young pleasant and attractive woman, with the hint of a smile playing on her lips. Like many other death masks, her eyes are closed, but at a glance, they look like they might open at any moment. She holds no name, only known as L'Inconnue de la Seine.

Her story is a tragic one. In late 19th century, she drowned and was recovered from the River Seine. Her body was then put on display at the Paris mortuary - a custom in those days - in the hope that someone would identify and take her. One of the pathologists was entranced by her enigmatic half-smile that he asked a moulder to take a plaster cast of her face.

Soon, her death mask became popular. It was on sale outside the mouleurs' workshops and became a muse of artists, novelists and poets, creating fictional identities around the mystery woman - the drowned Mona Lisa. At one time, all fashionable European drawing rooms had a mask of the Inconnue on the wall.

But Inconnue was granted a place in medical history thanks to a near-drowning incident in Norway, six decades later.

The face of the CPR Annie, believed to be copied off a death mask of Inconnue. Photo credit: L'inconnue (wiki commons) and Resusci Anne (Phil_Parker/flickrCC-BY-2.0)
The face of the CPR Annie, believed to be copied off a death mask of Inconnue. Photo credit: L'inconnue (wiki commons) and Resusci Anne (Phil_Parker/flickrCC-BY-2.0)

Given a new life in medical history

In 1955, Asmund Laerdal, a toymaker, saved the life of his young son, Tore, by fishing his lifeless body out of the water and clearing his airways in time. Specialising in making children's dolls and model cars from a new generation of soft plastics, he was approached by Peter Safar, an Austrian doctor who pioneered the CPR technique, to make a training aid for the newly-invented technique.

Laerdal was receptive to the idea due to his son's earlier experience, and went on to develop a torso to simulate an unconscious patient requiring CPR. However, he wanted the mannequin to have a natural appearance and felt that a female doll would seem less threatening to trainees - men were also uncomfortable performing mouth-to-mouth on male dummies.

A trip to an elderly relative's home gave inspiration to Laerdal. He saw the death mask of Inconnue and decided she would be the face of Resusci Anne. By choosing her mask, Laerdal turned Resusci Anne into a memorial of the unknown Frenchwoman who drowned in River Seine.

The true mystery behind the mask

But was the Inconnue actually dead in the first place? What if her face was taken from a live model?

When shown the mask, Pascal Jacquin, Chief Brigadier of the Paris river police, known as the Brigade Fluviale, was less than convinced that the girl was dead when the mask was made.

"It's surprising to see such a peaceful face," he said, "Everyone we find in the water, the drowned and suicides, they never look so peaceful. They're swollen, they don't look nice."

Pascal's experience from years of pulling dead bodies out of the Seine depicts a very different scene, contrary to what many artists and writers have created in stories like Ophelia, portraying drowning as a peaceful death. Those who committed suicide also fight for life at the last moment, as their faces show the struggle - the process of decomposition also begins much more quickly in water too.

This woman, he remarked, "looks like she's just asleep and waiting for Prince Charming to come".

Other experts also agree that the Inconnue was too healthy to be a death mask. But this uncertainty and enigma is what makes the Inconnue so captivating.

Whatever the circumstances of her death, she is now famous for saving lives. MIMS

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