L’Inconnue de la Seine: A Brief History of CPR Manikins

Manikin female head
An eerie story awaits.

When we were kids in the early 1990s, there were these toys called Crash Test Dummies. You pressed the button on the figures and their limbs would pop off – perfect for easily amused young lads like Mr. Wapojif.

Eventually, this training came in handy as we had to take a CPR test at GCSE level in High School (that was in late 1996). What our school didn’t tell us, though, is the enigmatic history of the face which has graced many a CPR manikin over the decades.

L’Inconnue de la Seine

L'Inconnue de la Seine

The unknown woman of the Seine was pulled from the Seine River in the late 1880s. No one has any clue who she was, and that’s a state of affairs that remains to this day – she’s a total unknown, but she was in her teens and had apparently committed suicide.

Whilst at the Paris Morgue (a venue of great entertainment and morbid curiosity back in the day – check out Death as Entertainment by Atlas Obscura), a pathologist became rather taken by her appearance.

This individual took a death mask, which features a curious Mona Lisa-esque smile – it’s as if she’s serene in death. Writers like Albert Camus picked up on this, with her mask inspiring many literary works in English, German, French, and Russian.

As the Wellcome Collection in London (a museum promoting science, medicine, and art) has acknowledged, she remains the most famous cadaver to pass through the morgue.

Why? As the death mask became a much sought after artistic item – the curious expression of happiness on her face bemused many and opened up a vast amount of debate. People would, literally, hang this girl’s death mask on the walls of their homes and have a discussion.

Do note, this is a putative mask. Some critics have suggested the girl is far too calm looking to have drowned – some folks, in fact, believe it belongs to a mask manufacturer from Germany and the whole L’Inconnue de la Seine “mystery” is as simple as that.

If, however, the face mask does belong to the unfortunate drowned lady, then it makes for particularly unusual revelations regarding a CPR manikin.

 Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation

What’s this all got to do with CPR, you wonder? The training manikin Resusci Anne was developed by a Norwegian chap called Asmund Laerdal, who used L’Inconnue de la Seine’s visage as the basis for the product’s mouthpiece. It’s unmistakably her when you take a closer look.

Thusly, if you’ve ever used a Resusci Anne then that makes for quite the eerie revelation. This style of manikin is still in use, as you can see in the clip above, with the distinctive look.

As such, this means the unknown woman from the Seine is regarded as the most kissed face in the history of the world. All rather disturbing and macabre, non?


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