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How It Came To Be: The True Story Behind “CPR Annie”

CPR Annie
CPR Annie as we see her today

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I’d like to say that I learned CPR so I could save lives, or fulfill my good-citizen duties, but then I’d be lying. I took a CPR class my senior year of college in order to fulfill a P.E. requirement. It was a Tuesday, and my senior thesis was due Wednesday. I had a lot on my mind, and was worrying about page counts, references and how much ink was left in my printer.

I was pulled rather violently out of my worry-reverie as we started to perform chest compressions on our CPR mannequins, or “CPR Annies” as our instructor called them. I asked her why they were named Annie and she told me that the guy who invented them had had a daughter of the same name who had died by drowning. The inventor, realizing that his daughter’s life could have been saved had someone known CPR, went on to create the dummies we were now pummeling. The mannequin’s face was supposedly that of the dead daughter.

Sad, I thought, and continued with my chest compressions.

Years later, I stumbled across this article, and learned that the story my CPR instructor had told me wasn’t true, but one of those myths of blurry origin that gets repeated so often it becomes fact.

The real story is less straightforward, and involves an Austrian physician, a Norwegian toy maker, and a beautiful French suicide.

The year is 1958. Peter Safar, an Austrian physician, (helped by an American doctor named James Elam), has just perfected his revolutionary CPR technique and is looking for someone to manufacture dummies on which people can practice. He finds the perfect candidate in Norwegian toy maker, Asmund Laerdal. In addition to manufacturing rubber toy cars and dolls, Laerdal has expanded his business to include a variety of rubber first aid materials, including realistic wound simulations. Laerdal also has something of a personal stake in the creation of a mannequin on which to practice CPR; he has saved his two year-old son, Tore, from drowning, “by grabbing him from the water just in time and clearing the boy’s airways” (perhaps this anecdote laid the foundations for the popularized myth of the doctor’s daughter) (Tjomsland).

 L’inconnue de la Seine
The unknown's death mask, photographed by Albert Rudomine. Courtesy of

So Safar and Laerdal form a partnership and set about creating a dummy that serves their needs. In addition to the necessary airways, the dummy needs to be a woman, as men of the time would be reluctant to perform mouth-to-mouth on male dummies. As they are developing the mannequin, Laerdal visits his parents in Norway and sees, according to Radiolab, hanging on the wall of his parents’ house, the mask of a beautiful woman (pictured left). This is the face he wants on his dummies: “enigmatic…peaceful…beautiful, but not sexy” (Tjomsland).

The mask that Laerdal saw at his parents’ was a death mask, molded over the face of a corpse fished out of the river Seine. The body was found near the quai du Louvre at the end of the nineteenth century. It was then sent to the Paris Morgue, so the story goes, to be put on display in the hopes that a passerby would identify it.

No such luck. The woman came to be known as L’inconnue de la Seine (“The Unknown Woman of the Seine”), and since there were no signs of violence to her body, everyone assumed that she had killed herself. Speculation regarding the unknown’s identity was rampant; she was a Hungarian music hall artist, she ended her life because of unrequited love, she was from the country…the public ate it up.

Before disposing of the body, an employee of the morgue made a plaster cast of her face. This plaster cast was reproduced and sold like hotcakes in Germany and France. Anyone who was anyone in bohemian circles had a copy of the mask; Albert Camus owned a copy, and compared its smile to that of the Mona Lisa. Poet Jules Supervielle had a mask, as did Richard le Gallienne, and other such as Anaïs Nin and Vladimir Nabokov drew artistic inspiration from it. One of those masks made its way into the home of Laerdal’s parents, and to date “Resusci Anne” (Laerdal named the dummies “Anne” after his already-popular children’s doll) is responsible for teaching over 300 million people how to perform CPR.

Sean Cole of Radiolab points out that thousands upon thousands of people every year try to bring L’inconnue back to life. Others have commented that the unknown woman is probably the most kissed face of all time. Still others believe that the whole story is false, and that a cast molded over a dead face would look differently.

And that’s how “CPR Annie” came to be.

What stories have you heard about “CPR Annie”?

Cole, Sean, narr. “Death Mask.” RadioLab. RadioLab, 11/2011. web. 15 Dec 2011.
Tjomsland, Nina. “The Resuscitation Greats: Asmund S. Laerdal.” Resuscitation. (2002): n. page. Print.
Zeidler, Anja. “Influence and Authenticity of L’Inconnue de la Seine.” n. page. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.

This article was brought to you in partnership with iTriage. iTriage was founded in 2008 by two emergency medicine physicians to empower people to make better healthcare decisions, and improve healthcare delivery. The company’s mobile healthcare platform offers a proprietary Symptom-to-Provider™ pathway that empowers patients to make better healthcare decisions. iTriage helps people answer the two most common medical questions: “What could be wrong?” and “Where should I go for treatment?” Consumers can download the free iTriage mobile app on their iPhoneand Android devices, and thousands of healthcare providers use iTriage to reach and communicate critical facility and service information to patients.

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