How the most kissed woman in history helps save lives

Venetian face of drowned woman used on CPR mannequin

Millions of people around the world have learned CPR on a dummy known as Resusci Anne. The image of the 19th Century beauty behind the model is used the world over. But does anyone really know anything about her?

The Lorenzi workshop is a small haven of peace and antiquity in the busy Parisian suburb of Arcueil. And it's the last of its kind. Downstairs the mouleurs, or cast-makers, create figurines, busts and statues, pouring plaster into moulds in much the same way they have since the family business started in the 1870s.

But if you want to be face-to-face with history, pick your way up the dusty wooden stairs to a room above the workshop. It's an unsettling experience. Hanging all around you in the narrow attic are life and death masks of poets and artists, politicians and revolutionaries: Napoleon, Robespierre, Verlaine, Victor Hugo, the robust, impatient face of the living Beethoven and the sallow, diminished features of the composer's death mask.

Yet, surprisingly, of all the visages of the great and the good on display at Lorenzi's, the best-seller is the mask of a young woman. She has a pleasant, attractive face, with the hint of a smile playing on her lips. Her eyes are closed but they look as if they might spring open at any moment. Hers is the one mask that has no name. She's known simply as the Inconnue, the unknown woman of the Seine.

This is how her story goes. Some time in the late 19th Century, the drowned body of a young woman was recovered from the River Seine. As was customary in those days, her body was put on display at the Paris mortuary, in the hope that someone would recognise and identify her. The pathologist on duty became so entranced by the face of the girl with the enigmatic half-smile that he asked a moulder to take a plaster cast of her face.

Before long the mask began to appear for sale outside the mouleurs' workshops on the Left Bank and soon the young woman's face became a muse for artists, novelists and poets, all eager to weave imagined identities and stories around the mystery woman, this drowned Mona Lisa. Over the years Rilke, Louis Aragon, Man Ray and Vladimir Nabokov successively fell under the Inconnue's spell and at one time no fashionable European drawing room was complete without a mask of the Inconnue on the wall.

One of the first stories featuring her was the 1899 novella The Worshipper of the Image by Richard le Gallienne, who portrays the mask as a malevolent force which bewitches and ultimately destroys a young poet. Other authors have been kinder, many of them telling the story of an innocent young woman from the country who comes to Paris, who's seduced by a rich lover and then abandoned when she falls pregnant. With nobody to turn to, she drowns herself in the waters of the Seine, a modern Ophelia. At the mortuary, her beautiful face, now peaceful in death, is preserved forever with a plaster cast.

It was another drowning - or near-drowning - that ensured the Inconnue a place in medical history.

In 1955 Asmund Laerdal saved the life of his young son, Tore, grabbing the boy's lifeless body from the water just in time and clearing his airways. Laerdal at that time was a successful Norwegian toy manufacturer, specialising in making children's dolls and model cars from the new generation of soft plastics. When he was approached to make a training aid for the newly-invented technique of CPR - cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the combination of chest compressions and the kiss of life which can save the life of a patient whose heart has stopped - his son's brush with death a few years earlier made him very receptive.

He developed a torso or whole-body mannequin which simulates an unconscious patient requiring CPR. Asmund wanted his mannequin to have a natural appearance. He also felt that a female doll would seem less threatening to trainees. Remembering a mask on the wall of his grandparents' house many years earlier, he decided that the Inconnue de la Seine would become the face of Resusci Anne. So if you're one of the 300 million people who's been trained in CPR, you've almost certainly had your lips pressed to the Inconnue's.

To book a first aid course you can call the NEAS training team on 0191 430 2050.

or visit www.firstaidneas.co.uk

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Copyright 2011 North East Ambulance Service Trust

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