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The face of the CPR training doll was once a real person who probably killed herself

PortandTerminal.com, February 28, 2020

PARIS, FRANCE – If you work in the maritime industry the odds are that at some you point in time, you have taken First Aid and CPR training. And if that’s the case, you just may have practised your CPR on a training doll like the one below. This is the story of how the first CPR doll came to have the face that it does.

“L’Inconnue de la Seine” (Unknown Woman of the Seine)

A mask and a mold of “L’Inconnue de la Seine” — the Unknown Woman of the Seine — at L’Atelier Lorenzi, near Paris. Credit: Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

It turns out, the CPR doll’s face is a copy of a 19th-century young woman’s face who drowned, very possibly as an act of suicide.

The story goes that the body of an unidentified young woman was fished out of the Seine River in Paris. Because her body was free of wounds and blemishes, she was presumed to have committed suicide. Considering the state of her skin and features, some specialists have estimated the girl’s age to be no greater than 16 years.

The pathologist at the morgue that received her body was so mesmerized by her beauty that he called in a “mouleur” — a molder — to preserve her face in a wax death mask. The molding studio that did the work is still in operation to this day.

A master mould maker in his studio filled with paster and sculptures
Juan José Garcia, a master mold maker, at work in the studio that created the mask L’Inconnue de la Seine. Credit: Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

In the decades that followed, the mask was mass-produced and sold as a decorative item for the walls of private homes and studios, first in Paris, then abroad. It came to be called “L’Inconnue de la Seine” (Unknown Woman of the Seine).

The image spread widely through history, inspiring many art pieces, stories, and novels. Some historians and scholars even note that The Unknown Woman of the Seine was a fashion icon with women trying to model their looks on her.

Albert Camus, the famous French author who kept an example of “L’Inconnue de la Seine” at home, once even compared the girl’s smile to that of Mona Lisa’s.

The first CPR doll

An early example of the first CPR doll form the 1960’s, called “Resusci Anne” in French

In the 1960s, L’Inconnue de la Seine” became famous in a different way — as a first-aid mannequin to teach CPR.

Peter Safar, an Austrian doctor, had recently developed the basics of CPR. He turned to Asmund Laerdal, a Norwegian toymaker, who coincidentally had rescued his young son from drowning, and they decided to create a life-size mannequin as a training tool.

Mr. Laerdal wanted a female doll, assuming that men would not want to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a male dummy. He saw a death mask of L’Inconnue at a relative’s home, was struck by her beauty and decided to make her his model. She was called “Resusci Anne” (“CPR Annie” in the United States) and became a physical symbol of salvation.

Here’s another example of the CPR training kit as it looked from the 1960s to the 1980s packed up in its carrying case.

Laerdal inflatable resusci-Anne training manikin with inflator in carrying case, 1960–1985, via Science Museum.
Laerdal inflatable resusci-Anne training manikin with inflator in carrying case, 1960–1985, via Science Museum.

Bittersweet ending

Black and white photo of the wax death mask of a young woman “L’Inconnue de la Seine” (Unknown Woman of the Seine)
“L’Inconnue de la Seine” (Unknown Woman of the Seine)

Since “CPR Annie” was created in the 1960s it has been used as a tool to train countless numbers of people on how to administer CPR and save lives in emergencies.

So while the full story of the sad, young french girl who likely drowned herself may never be fully known, she can rest knowing that she has played a role in saving thousands of lives.

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