In the late 19th century, it was not uncommon to find a corpse who could not be identified. Such was the case for a young woman who was pulled out of the River Seine in Paris, likely a suicide. Her body was labelled ecadavre feminin inconnu (unknown female cadaver) and as was customary at the time, her body was displayed in a chilled room with a glass window at the morgue, in the hopes that some passer-by would recognise her face and identify her.
At some point, a morgue attendant made a death mask of her face – a wax plaster cast that preserves the face of a corpse before it decomposes. The attendant’s motives are unclear: some stories state that he was entranced by her beauty, but it is also possible that he was trying to better preserve the face for identification. Regardless, the mask became copied many times in the following years and became strangely popular in the artistic world.
The face became famous for its eerie smile, which looks enigmatic yet peaceful, even being compared to the smile of the Mona Lisa. The mask – known as L’Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine) – became a popular, morbid fixture in the rooms of Parisian Bohemians.
In 1955, a Norwegian toymaker named Asmund Laerdal came across a novel material known as PVC, a soft plastic perfectly suitable for dolls. He found it to be a perfect material for the creation of a new training aid for the newly-invented CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) technique to be taught to those learning first aid. He wanted the mannequin to look as natural as possible. This is when Laerdal remembered a fixture on the wall of his grandparents’ house when he was younger: the L’Inconnue de la Seine. He considered the face to be ideal for the purpose of a resuscitation aide, with its peaceful, non-threatening features.
Thus, the Resusci Anne was created. Resusci Anne is by far the most popular CPR teaching tool used worldwide. It is often said that it is “the most kissed face in the world“, as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is a feature of CPR.
As charming and morbid the story may be, the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine has never been confirmed. It has only been passed on through history via novels, short stories and artists’ accounts. If you look closely at the face, the story seems less likely to be true, as a drowned corpse will often be much more bloated and disfigured from swelling, with a contorted, tortured face as victims frantically thrash and fight as the body screams for oxygen. The general consensus is that from a pathologist’s point of view, the mask is unlikely to be from a drowned young woman
Irregardless of the origin story of its face, the Resusci Anne has indubitably saved the lives of countless people around the world, by teaching people the important skills of CPR and first aid.