Her death has saved countless lives, but nobody ever knew who she was.

To really get the hang of CPR, you need a subject?—?a set of lungs to pump air into, a heart to palpitate. But human beings don’t make good ones, because they’re typically breathing on their own.

Texas-born doctor James Elam made the study of breathing his specialty, working with polio patients in the 1940s whose paralysis had spread to their lungs. Many were hooked up to “iron lungs” that breathed for them, but when those machines weren’t available, Elam often had to give his patients mouth-to-mouth for hours at a time. He realized that his own lungs were just as effective as the machine, but he had to breathe twice as hard.

In 1957, he worked with a group of other doctors to systematize mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, creating the techniques that would be combined with chest compressions to become CPR. Enlisting the help of a Norwegian toymaker named Asmund Laerdal, they worked up a human head and torso containing all of the necessary valves to simulate the process.

They called her Resusci Anne, and launched a massive campaign behind her to popularize CPR. With a training dummy, the breathing technique was easy to learn, and it wasn’t long before it was in practice everywhere.

More than 400 million people have used Resusci Anne to learn how to save lives. But few of them know that her unusual, expressive plastic face was taken from a real woman who captivated Paris in the 19th century.

As the story goes, a young lady was dredged from the River Seine and, as was the custom with unidentified corpses, placed in the Paris mortuary to await burial. The pathologist on duty was entranced by the woman’s curious expression?—?in death, her mouth had taken on a faint, enigmatic smile. So he recruited a sculptor he knew to make a death mask of her before she was put in the ground.


That mask was then used to make casts of her face, which were displayed in studios and drawing rooms around France and, eventually, the world.

She became known as L’Inconnue de la Seine?—?the “unknown woman of the Seine.” Her expression has captivated writers, artists and filmmakers for generations.

Philosopher Maurice Blanchot eulogized the anonymous girl, writing that she was “a young girl with closed eyes, enlivened by a smile so relaxed and at ease … that one could have believed that she drowned in an instant of extreme happiness.” That happiness is key to her appeal?—?despite suffering the horror of drowning, her face shows no signs of panic or fear.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote a poem about her in 1934. Albert Camus called her a modern-day Mona Lisa. L’Inconnue inspired a 1963 ballet and a whole generation of German fashion. Her death mask was one of the most iconic images of her time, and nobody ever knew who she was.

A copy of her death mask hung in Laerdal’s studio a half-century later, and he used it as the model for Resusci Anne. The dummy’s face has gone unchanged, and her visage is reproduced over and over on models newly updated with wireless sensors that communicate with iPads to measure breath power and chest compressions.

Some call Resusci Anne the “most kissed face of all time,” due to the millions of people who have locked lips with her to practice CPR. It’s both ironic and beautiful that this mysterious young lady who died from a loss of breath became a way to save others from suffering the same fate.