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The girl from the Seine.

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Author: Watts, Geoff

Section: Histories
The girl from the Seine

A popular spectacle in late 19th-century Paris was the city morgue's display of unknown bodies fished out of the river Seine. It was staged in the hope that visitors might recognise someone. Before disposing of unclaimed corpses the morgue attendants would occasionally cast death masks from their heads. Such was the fate of one young woman dragged from the river around the turn of the century. Her mask was later copied and sold in large numbers. The face of L'inconnue de la Seine, as she became known, soon appeared on the walls of sitting rooms across the continent. A century later, wherever people are learning the life-saving skills of resuscitation, it's the face of L'inconnue they see.

I FIRST met Anne in the summer of, I think, 1984. It was to be our only close encounter. It took place in a sparsely furnished room in north London. When I entered her room Anne was lying silent and immobile on a leather couch, a kind of day bed. Neither of us spoke. But within minutes I was at her side, clutching her head between my hands, pressing my lips to hers. How well I recall the excitement of my every breath on that warm afternoon. How clearly I remember inhaling so deeply, then forcing the air out as if my life â€" our lives â€" depended upon this act of ventilation. Anne just stared, unblinking. Not a movement, not a sound. In the end it was hopeless. It was all over. I turned away and left her.

And that's the problem with practising cardiopulmonary resuscitation, CPR, on a dummy. Even if you do it correctly there is not a lot to show for your efforts. But in her own passive, compliant manner "Resusci Anne" â€" to use the mannequin's full name â€" has helped millions of people around the world to master the art of resuscitating their fellow beings.

The person to whom Anne owes her name is not the one from whom she acquired her appearance. The name itself is no mystery: it was conferred by the man who invented her. The story of the way she looks, of the image that forms her face, is altogether more tangled.

Like any river running through one of the world's great cities, the Seine in Paris receives its regular crop of suicides. One such was a young woman with a calm and haunting smile. Why the attendants at the Paris morgue chose her corpse as one from which they would take a death mask is unknown. Perhaps it was her youth; perhaps her beauty; or perhaps that smile. Nor is it clear why or how copies of her death mask came to be cast and sold in large numbers. But they were and many homes in France and Germany displayed one.

Because no one knew the woman's identity she acquired the name "L'inconnue de la Seine". One theory has her as a Hungarian music hall artist who performed at the famous Funambules theatre, and had an affair with a wealthy married Parisian called Roland Vittes. He, so the story goes, was unsuccessfully blackmailed by one Louis Argon, a convicted criminal. Either of these men could have killed her and dumped her in the Seine. But there were no marks of violence on her body, and so it was generally assumed that she must have committed suicide, perhaps to escape from some other unrequited love affair, perhaps from sheer poverty.

Although largely unknown outside Europe, L'inconnue de la Seine became something of an icon in the France of the 1920s and 1930s. She fascinated Albert Camus, AnaĂŻs Nin, Maurice Blanchot, Rainer Maria Rilke and other European poets and writers. Among those inspired to create fictional accounts of the girl's death was the Liverpool-born Richard le Gallienne. His story tells how the man who made the mask fell in love with its deceased subject, went mad, and eventually followed her into the Seine.

The German writer Reinhold Conrad Muschler was another who exploited the death as raw material for a story. The British literary critic Al Alvarez describes his effort as "sickly": a tear jerker that was filmed soon after publication and became a 1930s equivalent of Love Story. It's even suggested that L'Inconnue was the erotic ideal of her day, with an influence similar to that of Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s.

It is at this point that the posthumous life of the girl in the Seine begins moving towards her destiny in medicine. In the late 1950s two doctors, one American, one Norwegian, met at a conference on anaesthetics being held in Norway. The American, Peter Safar was among the pioneers of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; Bjørn Lind worked at the hospital in Stavanger. Safar rightly believed that the best way of teaching people to perform CPR would be to make a training mannequin. Lind said he knew of someone who could do it: a man called Åsmund Lærdal who also lived in Stavanger.

Lærdal, who had begun his career by studying marketing and advertising, ran a firm that published children's books and made wooden toys. He had also moved into plastics and begun to manufacture a range of toy cars and children's dolls. Among his biggest successes was a doll marketed under the name "Anne". Keen to diversify his business, he began making medical products: specifically plastic imitation wounds on which members of the Norwegian Civil Defence could practise their first-aid skills. Would he consider making a resuscitation mannequin, asked Lind.

Lærdal was enthusiastic. He had once rescued his own two-year-old son Tore from drowning, and then had to clear the child's airways. For the next two years he worked on developing a mannequin that looked realistic, had a head that could be turned, and a chest that would move as it was inflated. But what gender should it be?

Not male, for sure. Macho men, Lærdal felt, might be reluctant to perform the kiss of life on a dummy of their own sex. It had to be a woman…but with whose image? Lærdal already knew and had been moved by the story of the girl in the Seine. Besides acting as a fitting memorial to L'inconnue, he thought, a mannequin with attractive features (beautiful but not sexy, according to one commentator) would be an added inducement to those learning the technique.

In choosing a name, Lærdal opted to stick with Anne, tagging "Resusci" at the front to distinguish her from his more familiar doll. The new training mannequin began to sell well in Norway. The US proved less susceptible to her charms. On Lærdal's first visit he sold only one and that was at half price. It took several more years to convince the US authorities. But Anne's submissive teaching eventually made its mark and began to save American as well as European lives.

Resusci Anne acquired new talents. When researchers in the US showed that pressing hard on the chest could maintain a flow blood to the brain, Lærdal modified his mannequin to allow trainees to practise external chest compression as well as ventilation. He developed a sibling for Anne, one that could generate an immediate printout of the effectiveness with which users had applied themselves to her. And there was even a happy event: the birth of Resusci Baby.

Lærdal himself prospered. By the time he died in 1981 the company he had created was a market leader in manufacturing all sorts of medical equipment. He had also set up a foundation to support research and education in emergency medicine.

There was a time when the recently deceased could be hauled from their graves, and might finish their earthly existence as material for medical research or for training doctors in anatomy. By the time L'inconnue met her watery demise, body snatching had ceased. But what happened to her was not so very different. Her body was left intact but her identity was stolen: after all, there was no one to give permission to use either her story or her face. Lærdal probably imagined that by giving his mannequin the face of L'inconnue he was paying tribute to a woman who should not have died. Or perhaps he liked the idea that, like all those writers and poets, he could rewrite her story. The difference was that his would have a happy ending.

"By the time L'inconnue met her demise, body snatching had ceased"

"She inspired poets and writers and a dummy designed to save lives"

You can see the death mask of L'inconnue de la Seine at The Museum of the Order of St John in London.

For information visit

PHOTO (COLOR): The drowned girl with the haunting smile became something of an icon in France in the 1920s



By Geoff Watts

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