Dead girl with world’s most-kissed lips

Nobody knows what her name was, or what brought her to Paris and left her drowned in the River Seine.

She's young - perhaps still a teenager. Her face is serene, her cheeks round and full, her skin smooth. Pleasant-looking, but not classically beautiful, with eyes that look like they could open at any moment.

But it's her haunting half-smile that the girl with the most-kissed lips in history - known forever more as L'Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine) - is most recognised for.

If you're one of the 300 million people who've been trained in CPR you may know her by a different name - Anne. And you've almost certainly had your lips pressed to her's.

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"I came face-to-face with Anne only once," Angelique Chrisafis wrote for The Guardian in 2007.

"She was reclining by a swimming pool in south-east England. Eyes shut, she lay there, slightly smiling, waiting for someone to press their mouth to her cold, thin lips."

 

Chrisafis is one of the millions of first aid students who, for more than 50 years, have tried to bring L'Inconnue back to life through Resusci Anne (or CPR Annie): the mannequin responsible for helping people learn the basics of CPR since the 1960s.

When Norwegian toymaker Asmund Laerdal was approached by Peter Safar - an Austrian doctor who pioneered the basics of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) - to create a life-size mannequin as a first aid training tool, L'Inconnue became a physical symbol of salvation.

"Inspired by the 'young woman of the Seine', CPR Annie has become the symbol of life for millions of people around the world who have received training in modern techniques of resuscitation and for those whose lives have been saved from unnecessary death," the Laerdal Company's website explains.

Laerdal wanted to create a female doll, assuming that men would not want to practice mouth-to-mouth on a dummy of their own gender. And the face that he chose for this plastic woman - who would die and be resurrected millions of times - is at the centre of a macabre mystery.

In the late 19th century, the body of an unidentified woman was pulled from the murky waters of the Seine in Paris.

With its picturesque bridges and cobbled riverbanks, the river has always held a morbid fascination for the millions of people who travel up and down it each year. But one question has persisted, along Paris' riversides and beyond: who was this woman, and how did she really die?

When her lifeless body was pulled from the Seine's murky depths, it was free of wounds and blemishes - so L'Inconnue was presumed to have committed suicide. While nobody came forward to identify her, when the pathologist at the morgue received her body, he was so mesmerised by her beauty that he ordered a plaster cast to be made of her face.

People visiting the morgue in Paris to view the cadavers.
People visiting the morgue in Paris to view the cadavers.

The mask was a hit, and in the decades that followed was mass-produced and sold as a decorative item for the walls of private homes and studios, first in Paris and then abroad.

L'Inconnue became a muse for artists, poets and writers, captivating the likes of Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso, poet Rainer Maria Rilke and novelist Vladimir Nabokov.

Philosopher Albert Camus compared her enigmatic smile to that of the Mona Lisa, the eerily happy expression on her face inviting numerous speculations about her life, her death, and her place in society.

She has been portrayed as both victim and witch; orphan and seductress, but it was another drowning that ensured L'Inconnue a place in medical history, and truly gave her life after death.

One day - decades after L'Inconnue was fished from the Seine - Laerdal's two-year-old son nearly drowned. Had his father not pulled the limp boy from the water and cleared his airways, things would have turned out very differently.

When Safar and his group of anaesthesiologists approached the toymaker and told him they needed a doll to demonstrate a newly-developed resuscitation technique - a combination of chest compressions and "the kiss of life", saving the life of a patient whose heart has stopped - they found a willing creator.

Aside from the challenge of making a realistic, functional mannequin who could reliably demonstrate CPR - a collapsible chest for practicing compressions and open lips to simulate mouth-to-mouth resuscitation - what kind of face would Laerdal give to this doll?

That's when he remembered the mask of a young woman's calmly smiling face, hanging from the walls of his in-law's house: L'Inconnue.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd with a Resusci Anne mannequin.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd with a Resusci Anne mannequin.

While the tale of how L'Inconnue's mask came to be has been widely accepted for 150 years, there are some who doubt that such flawless features could come from the face of a drowned girl, especially one retrieved from the depths of a river.

No documents survive in the Paris police archives. No trace of her actual body has ever been found.

Perhaps the drowned girl was the original basis of the mask, but her features - which may have been bloated or scarred - were moulded to become more appealing. Perhaps she posed for the moulder when she was still alive, and the legend of L'Inconnue only took on when her body was found.

Regardless of scepticism, her story has been transcended by what she symbolises as Resusci-Anne: the face of a method that has prevented millions from dying before their time.

The Laerdal Company has estimated two million lives have been saved by CPR. And these rescues were made possible because people knelt down and came face-to-face with L'Inconnue, learning a technique that could have saved her, too.


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