Resusci Annie has helped millions of First Aiders learn CPR, but the ‘most kissed face in the world’ has a legend all of her own.
The story, about to be retold at a London symposium to mark European Restart a Heart Day, is that some time in the late 19th century the drowned body of a young woman was pulled from the River Seine in Paris. Her body was put on display in the mortuary in the hope that someone would identify her, but the duty pathologist became so entranced by the face of the ‘drowned Mona Lisa’ that asked a moulder to take a plaster cast of it.
Soon, copies of the death mask began to appear for sale on the Left Bank. The girl’s face with the enigmatic half-smile became a muse for artists, novelists and poets, who all produced their own versions of the back-story of the ‘Inconnue’, the unknown woman of the Seine. The central theme was that she was an innocent young woman who came to Paris, was seduced by a rich lover, then abandoned when she fell pregnant. With nobody to turn to, she drowned herself in the Seine. As her legend grew, the death mask became a best seller across Europe.
It was a near-drowning in 1955 that secured the Inconnue’s place in medical history. A Norwegian toy manufacturer, Asmund Laerdal, saved the life of his young son by grabbing his lifeless body from the water and clearing his airways in the nick of time. Inspired to make a training aid for the newly devised CPR technique (cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the combination of chest compressions and the kiss of life which can save the life of a patient whose heart has stopped), Laerdal developed a whole-body mannequin in soft plastic to simulate an unconscious patient. He wanted the mannequin to have a natural appearance and to be female, so the ‘patient’ would seem less threatening to trainees. He remembered the face of the Inconnue de la Seine which had hung on the wall of his grandparents’ house many years earlier, and she became the face of Resusci Annie.
The re-teller of this story, Jeremy Grange, made a BBC Radio 4 programme about the Inconnue in 2009. On a later visit to the photographic studio of Edward Chambre Hardman in Liverpool, he saw a mask of the Inconnue on the wall. The guide at the studio told him the story behind it. The face was that of two identical twin sisters, born in Liverpool in the 19th century. One of them embarked on a love affair with a rich suitor and eloped to Paris, but was never seen again. Many years later the other sister visited Paris on holiday and, walking down a street, was shocked to see the mask of the drowned Inconnue hanging outside a workshop. She instantly recognised the girl as her long-lost twin.
Not everyone is convinced that the Inconnue was actually dead when her likeness was immortalised in plaster. For his programme, Grange showed the mask to the chief of the Paris river police, known as the Brigade Fluviale, who specialise in dredging drowned bodies from the Seine. Chief Brigadier Pascal Jacquin said: “It’s surprising to see such a peaceful face. Everyone we find in the water, the drowned and suicides, they never look so peaceful. They’re swollen, they don’t look nice.” He explained that even suicides fight for life at the last moment, the struggle usually etched on their faces, and that the process of decomposition usually starts much more quickly in water. This woman, he said, “looks like she’s just asleep and waiting for Prince Charming to come.”