The Woman Behind the Mask

Who is that face we have all been kissing to learn vital resuscitation skills?

Kneeling on the floor in a room full on CPR dolls neatly lined in rows, looked like I was in a morgue of limbless, plastic clones. Nevertheless, that calm, smiling mask facing the ceiling made it feel a lot less sombre. After watching the video on some killer techniques for saving a life, then carefully wiping disinfectant over the doll’s face (because Corona… you know), we got to practice on our own lifeless mannequins. 

  1. Check that the scene is safe. 
  2. Check for responsiveness and breathing (Annie, are you ok?… yes, that’s a reference to Michael Jackson’s song which he reportedly wrote after learning CPR (1))
  3. Call the emergency services. 
  4. Place the person on their back and give 30 chest compressions. 
  5. Give two breaths so that the chest rises. 
  6. Use the defibrillator as soon as one is available and continue CPR. 

Have you ever wondered though, who’s face we are breathing into? According to the obituary for the doll’s creator, Åsmund S. Lærdal, CPR Anne (aka. Rescusci Annie) is in fact based on the death mask of a French woman found drowned in the Seine. The infamous l’inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine) (2). 

Photo: The death mask of l’inconnue de la Seine. Wikipedia (Public Domain).

A couple of factors probably lead to Åsmund’s creation, firstly he became interested in first aid when his son almost died, he had also been experimenting with soft PVC plastics in his toy-making business, which led to being hired by the Norwegian Civil Defence to design realistic wound castings (wound moulage) to help with first aid training. Soon after that he got together with some doctors to create the first mouth-to-mouth practice dummy in 1960 after the New England Journal of Medicine published a landmark article showing the effectiveness of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (3), which was not often used by first responders. 

Yet, this creative and inventive man had some trouble when it came to sculpturing the face for his doll, so apparently after stumbling across the death mask of a drowned, 19th century Parisian girl, he decided that he would use that. You may be wondering how this cast of a dead woman’s face was available to be stumbled across by Åsmund? You’re not wrong, that’s a strange thing to have lying around. 

There are countless stories of l’inconnue de la Seine and a lot of criticism around whether it is her because let’s be honest, a drowned body would probably look a bit more bloated than that. I don’t think its something we will ever know the truth of, but this death mask became a sort of fashionable piece of art to have in Parisian homes. It attracted the attention of poets and philosophers who created many the morbid romance around her life and death. 

So, who is the woman behind the mask? Well, it depends on how you look at it and it can probably get more philosophical, so I’ll leave it up to interpretation. Is it weird that the CPR doll Anne was based on a death mask of an 18th century French woman? Or is it just a plastic form that resembles an anonymous face and merely the learning tool we use to save lives? You tell me!

  1. ”Michael Jackson’s Bad at 25: The Movie”. E! Online. December 1, 2012. Retrieved April 02 2020, from: https://www.eonline.com/news/367450/new-michael-jackson-documentary-spike-lee-s-bad-25-is-a-funky-gem-you-can-watch-online 
  2. Safar P. In Memoriam, Asmund S. Laerdal. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine. Cambridge University Press; 1985;1(S1):xii-xiv. Available online: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S1049023X00043569 
  3. Elam JO, Brown ES, Jr JDE. Artificial Respiration by Mouth-to-Mask Method — A Study of the Respiratory Gas Exchange of Paralyzed Patients Ventilated by Operator’s Expired Air. N Engl J Med. 1954; 250(18):749-754. doi: 10.1056/NEJM195405062501801 
  4. Zeidler, Anja: “Influence and authenticity of l’Inconnue de la Seine” in Steven Moore: A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s ‘The Recognitions’ (1982) (http://williamgaddis.org/recognitions/inconnue/index.shtml, accessed 03 April 2022)

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