She’s been called “the most kissed face in the world.” I think it’s fair to say that most of us will encounter Resusci Anne/Resus Anne/Rescue Anne/CPR Anne at some point of our lives. The mannequin itself dates from the 1960s when it was first produced by Laerdal Medical. However, as often with medical history, the story of Anne goes back further than that.
It’s Paris in the late 1880s; a busy, bustling city where, much like London, there was what we would now consider a morbid curiosity with death and it was not uncommon for people to vanish. The body of a young woman, presumed to be no more than 16 years old, is pulled out of the River Seine. As is customary her body is displayed in the mortuary window on a marble slab (a popular attraction at the time) in the hope a family will come forward. They don’t.
Her body shows no sign of disease or trauma. Suicide is suspected. But something else intrigues the pathologist. Her face upon which is a calm, knowing half smile quite unlike anything you’d expect from a person drowning. The pathologist was so taken by her he ordered a plaster cast to be made of her face.
Copies of the plaster cast became widespread as both a decoration and artistic inspiration. Parallels were drawn with Ophelia, the character in William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ who drowns after falling out of a willow tree. The French philosopher Albert Camus compared her enigmatic smile to the Mona Lisa.
In Richard Le Gallienne’s 1899 novella, ‘The Worshipper of the Image’, the protagonist Antony falls in love with the death mask. The Russian born poet Vladimir Nabokov wrote a whole 1934 poem titled “L’Inconnue de la Seine” in which he imagined her final days:
Urging on this life’s denouement,
loving nothing upon this earth,
I keep staring at the white mask
of your lifeless face.
In 1926 the death mask was included in a catalogue of death masks and was titled, ‘L'Inconnue de la Seine’ (The Unknown Woman of the Seine) and her legend was complete.
Fast forward to 1955 and the Norwegian toy manufacturer Asmund Laerdal saves his son Tore from near drowning in a river. Shortly after he is approached to design a mannequin to help teach cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. He decides that a female mannequin would be less scary for students and wants her to have as natural a face as possible. Remembering a plaster cast of L’Inconnue he decides to replicate her face. L’Inconnue is reborn as ‘Resusci Anne’. The rest is history.
As Laerdal themselves put it: "Like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and John Everett Millais' Ophelia, the girl from the Seine represents an ideal of beauty and innocence." An anonymous victim of drowning now responsible for teaching cardio-pulmonary resuscitation around the world having briefly been the focus of gothic romantic obsession. It’s unlikely she could ever have imagined this legacy in her short life.
Thanks for reading