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Death Mask

Monday, November 28, 2011 - 02:41 AM

Near the end of the 19th century, a mysterious young woman with a beguiling smile turned up in Paris. She became a huge sensation. She also happened to be dead. You'd probably recognize her face yourself. You might have even touched it.

Radiolabber Sean Cole explains that, long ago, death masks were a common way of preserving the faces of famous people--clay moulds were made of Napoleon, Beethoven, Lincoln, and so on. But one of the most famous death masks was of a woman who wasn't famous at all when she was alive. BBC producer Jeremy Grange tells the story of this face, known simply as "L'inconnue de la Seine" (the unknown woman of the Seine), and how it found its way into living rooms across Europe.

Fast forward to 1960. An Austrian doctor named Peter Safar was developing the basics of CPR, and he needed a way for people to practice his new method. He tracked down a toy maker in Norway, Asmund Laerdal, who had constructed prosthetic wounds for use in military training. Little did Safar know that Laerdal had a compelling, personal reason for getting involved. Ultimately, Laerdal decided the best way to learn artificial resuscitation would to practice on a dummy. All he needed was the perfect face. 

Asmund Laerdal with Resusci Anne

Asmund Laerdal with the CPR doll Resusci Anne.

Sean tells Jad & Robert how the dummy got her face, and about the real woman behind the mask.

L'inconnue & Resusci Anne

L'inconnue (wiki commons) and Resusci Anne (Phil_Parker/flickrCC-BY-2.0)


Sean Cole, Jeremy Grange and Tore Laerdal


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Comments [59]


What the what?
They look nothing alike.

Oct. 22 2016 05:24 PM
Elizabeth from London

Another rumour I've heard is that in the song 'Smooth Criminal' Michael Jackson refers to Resusci-Ann when he asks 'Annie are you ok?'

Supposedly there was one in the studio when he was recording the song...


Aug. 12 2016 10:28 AM
Tracey from San José, Caifornia

I learned AR on live colleagues decades ago when training to be a lifeguard, but taught plenty of students on Resusci-Ann and recertified my credentials using the dummies many years later. We told a story about her face with had ties to Sweden, but that's about all we had right. :)

May. 30 2015 04:23 PM
Virginia N. Plath from United States

What a poetic story. The women who died is the one to save lives. I love the mystery behind this and found it fun to think about who the women actually could have been. I wish I could have heard more theories.

Feb. 02 2015 08:19 PM
Hermione Grisham from London

I thought that this was incredibly interesting especially when the story came full circle where everyone learning CPR is working on a woman who died from drowning. Its as if we are all trying to save the mystery women from dying. I never even thought that someone would have to be the mold for it. If my sister disapeared and then I saw her face as a mask in a museum I'm not sure what I would think.

Jan. 12 2015 08:17 PM
Agatha B. Silverstein from Florida

This is an incredible story. This woman even though her story is filled with uncertainties is one of the most famous women in the Earth. Her death mask was used as the face everyone sees when they take a CPR class and they most likely don't know the face of the dummy is from an actual person. There is a sort of irony to her story if any of it's true, the face of a drowning victim is now the face people use to learn how to resuscitate some one who is actually drowning.

Jan. 12 2015 07:21 PM
Maria A

I must say this is by far the most interesting podcast I have listened to yet. It it so creepy and cool. And overall it is a huge mystery as to who this woman actually was. I think the mysteriousness of her face and her story is what draws me in, it is just fascinating I may do some research on this because it has really sparked my interest.

Apr. 24 2014 04:48 PM

Very interesting piece, as Radiolab always is. I've linked a post about some of my images to this podcast:

Aug. 11 2013 09:02 AM
Mike D from Peoria, IL

Interesting. It appears that L'inconnue de la Seine may have been Stieg Larsson's chief inspiration for the character of Harriet Vanger in Män som hatar kvinnor.

Jun. 16 2013 09:30 PM
Clippingimages from 77/2, Shah Ali Bagh, Mirpur Dhaka 1216

You have a done a fantastic job. I am impressed of your work. Keep it up.

May. 20 2013 02:09 AM
Rekha from New York

I love Radiolab so ridiculously much, but I wish this episode had lingered more on the question Robert and Jad posed at the end about how no one really knew anything *about* this woman. That might sound counter-intuitive, since *no one knew anything about her*, but even if there was just more discussion about how bizarre the obsession around this (now-dead) woman's beauty and quiet peacefulness was. The volume of that flavor of commentary felt like some gross infatuation with women without voices -- and, to me, the note the episode ended on didn't feel like it truly spoke to how strange and kind of sick that was.

Apr. 08 2013 10:22 AM

...she's from Wisconsin as far as Wisconsinites are concerned...

Mar. 10 2013 04:29 PM
Markhery from America

You evidently have given up, but we'll still stand, obtuse,ugly, and rejected, ignored among the bleats and moos of polite, comfortable NPR contributors.

Feb. 17 2013 02:27 AM
nick from london uk

in response to jay you can get a copy from

Oct. 09 2012 04:39 AM

does anyone khow where i can purchase a copy of the death mask

Aug. 12 2012 01:15 PM

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Aug. 11 2012 01:37 AM
Robert from Chicago

Will someone please remind what episode featured the most beautiful story of a man who decided he would die after his wife was diagnosed with cancer and then removed himself from his chemotherapy upon learning of her death. The following segment featured a gorgeous poem read by 40 or so people about last moments of life. I can't find it anywhere!

Jul. 29 2012 05:35 PM
Clif from Colorado

Hey Dan, you're probably not in Paris anymore, but for anyone who wants to check out the mask shop, it's Lorenzi Moulage d'Art:
60 av. Laplace, Arcueil, France | 01 47 35 37 54 |
You can find this info (for now at least) under RECOMMENDED LINKS above.

Jun. 30 2012 05:15 PM
Dan McGuire from Paris

This piece mentions a museum of death masks - I am in paris for a week and want to visit it, but can't find any info. Can someone supply the address and name? Very grateful.
dandmcguire at g mail dot com. Thanks!

Apr. 16 2012 04:49 AM

Uh, am I the only one who doesn't see any resemblance? Look at the chin and jaw, cheeks, nose, length of face from eye to chin, etc....

BTW, I linked in from Beachcombing's Bizarre History blog. (

Mar. 14 2012 12:55 PM

Uh, am I the only one who doesn't see any resemblance? Look at the chin and jaw, cheeks, nose, length of face from eye to chin, etc....

BTW, I linked in from Beachcombing's Bizarre History blog. (

Mar. 14 2012 12:49 PM

Asmand found his son face down in the water...the only thing keeping him alive was some kind of jacket or blanket or something. They then had started learning about CPR. Asmand then comes up with the dummy and he had to decide what the dummy would look like and he finds a death mask that he wants to use. There was a girl that died and she was very creepy and weird. When they found her she had a small smile on her face and she was never identified. She became known as the unknown woman. The mask of this woman became very popular and people had them hanging on their walls. This was first introduced in 1960 and over 300 million people have been trained on these. Every dummy has the face of this woman. It's like these people practicing CPR on this dummy are trying to bring this drowned woman back to life. They also told another story about these twins. One of them gets pregnant, they guy leaves, so she throws herself off a bridge in paris. Her twin sister never knew what happened to her and when she went to paris, she saw her sisters mask all over paris.

i thought that this was kind of creepy. in some ways its kind of cool. but when it talks about going into these death mask shops and having the rows of death masks in there would be really creepy. Everytime i see a dummy now im going to think of this and be even more creeped out. :) Its really weird how people would hang this ladies mask on their walls just because they were curious about her. I thought it was cool how they talked about how it was like everyone who practiced CPR on these dummies were trying to save this woman who drowned. I think these masks are really weird. i don't think i would want a mask of some random person displayed in my home. i think that part is really weird.

Jan. 23 2012 09:57 AM
Darwin from Madrid, España

Only face I ever kissed where I first had to brush her gently-parted lips with an alcohol swipe.

Jan. 17 2012 10:39 AM
ovid uman from Bagnolet, France

To Vic De Donder from Westerlo (Belgium)
The book I mentioned: is out of print. `
(" Le nom de l'inconnue" by Didier Blonde. Editions R. Deforges, 1988ISBN 2905538295, 9782905538291)
The book is mentioned in the bibliography section of the wiki french entry :
I can send you a copy of the review of the book which appeared in Le Figaro in 1988.
...notes from the review :
D. Blonde wrote the book in the form of a journal. The narrator is described as a librarian who searches for clues of 'l'inconnue' everywhere - even through files found in the Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale.
There are a lot of names mentioned : Aragon, Celine, Rilke, as well as Horvarth and Supervielle - autors of a theatre piece with the same name- "l'Inconnue de la Seine". The narrator apparently discovers that Jules Lefebre places the the death in 1875, contradicting both Rilke and Aragon who said she drowned in 1901 and 1930 respectively.
The reviewer concludes that she is a mith, a legend - which changes according to the needs of the poet's inspiration. He ends with a quote from the book by Julien Gracq: " ... a woman: in other words a question, a pure enigma. "
I guess this is a close as you can get to " a scientific approach" when it comes to this obscure subject.
Good luck!


Jan. 12 2012 02:47 PM
Vic De Donder from Westerlo (Belgium)

I am a Belgian author writing a book on Smile in Art. One of my chapters is dedicated to L'Inconnue de la Seine. So, I am looking for information about this enigma. Though I have read a lot of books about this smiling lady, I never have found a book or article with a really scientific approach. Ovid mentions a book of Didier Blonde, but I cannot find it. What is the title?

Jan. 07 2012 10:28 AM
Mtsang from Syracuse, N.Y.

Years ago I agreed to having a mask made as practice for Oral Surgery interns.
There was no smiling going on as the straws in my nostrils to help me breath thru the experience were moved askew due to the application of the alginate goo. Luckily I was able to use hand signals to get some O2 pushed thru the straws STAT!
But it felt like I was being buried alive! Can we say CREEPY?!?!
I have two plaster casts that were made from this mold and have to keep them wrapped up and packed away
from my now 16 year old son who is still really unnerved by the sight of them. He says he can't look at them because I look dead.
Gotta say, I miss that chin line from years past tho!

The experience rendered me a new claustrophobic, and makes a simple facial, a anxiety ridden event that I haven't been able to put myself through again.
Great story tho...

Jan. 06 2012 08:58 AM

My mother did a drawing of this cast and it hangs in our livingroom - I didn't realize who she was until a few years ago, she's been there this whole time!

Jan. 03 2012 01:20 PM
Matthew White

Great short. A great Scottish band My Latest Novel have a beautiful song called Lacklustre about this story. If you're intrigued:

Dec. 22 2011 02:00 AM
Lesley Neesham from Suffolk/UK

Hi all lovely to hear so many compelling accounts of this story. I would like to add another :) please go to:

This whole project was enspired by this podcast and I hope you all will agree that it is very special.

Best regards

Dec. 21 2011 09:24 AM
Tara from Sacramento CA

related (loosely) to the practice of CPR:

I am trained in CPR and first aid, and not once did my trainers mention broken ribs as a common result of CPR. Hmm.

Dec. 19 2011 11:11 AM
Mr. Klefstad from Seattle

I first heard the story of the death mask on Resusci Anne as a Norwegian Pride tale. It was at YMCA camp near Spokane, WA, where I took my first CPR class. The woman teaching CPR told us a story about a Norwegian family who lost a teenage daughter one summer to a swimming accident in a fjord. The grief-stricken family was comforted by the idea that thousands of people would learn how to help save drowning victims using their daughter's death mask.

She backed up her story by showing us the "Made in Norway" on the back of Resusci Anne's wooden box.

Neither the teacher nor I let on that we knew each other. We were both members of the same church back in Spokane, a Lutheran church full of Americans of Norwegian ancestry.

Dec. 14 2011 05:22 PM

I love it : )

Dec. 14 2011 01:00 AM
Kieran from London, UK

I believe a photograph of the CPR doll is also used for the cover art of Radiohead's The Bends, meaning that thousands of people will have worn an image of L'inconnue de la Seine as a t-shirt, or taped to their bedroom wall as a teenager.

Dec. 12 2011 11:57 AM

Found "L'Inconnue".
I live in Bagnolet, a Paris suburb.
After listening to the story this past week, I went on one of my regular sunday strolls at one of the Paris flea markets (Montreuil) near my house. At one of the few stands worth stopping, I stumbled upon a yellow glazed plaster of the "l'Inconnue".
It was too weird. I had to buy it!
Scotch-taped on its back was a old Figaro newspaper article from 1988. A review of a 'new' book by Didier Blonde about this mysterious woman. The article was titled: " Quete et enquete autour de l'Inconnue de la Seine" signed, Jean-Rene Van Der Plaetsen. (He still writes for the Figaro.)
Add to that the fact that the sweet old lady - the vendor - wrapped it in a white cloth and placed it in double plastic bags and you have the full picture of my experience.
The l'Inconnue, is now part of my modest Museum of oddities.
The more we read about the mystery surrounding this enigmatic figure, the more skeptical we become about the myth that developed around her. From all the conflicting accounts one thing seems to emerge as the more plausible subject of the "mask"- that she was in all likeliness a living person at the time of the cast.
But we all love the more nuanced version anyway.
Thank you Radiolab.
see photos here:

Dec. 11 2011 05:44 PM
John Williams, MD from Pittsburgh, PA, USA

For those who are doubt the story, one of the first mannequin heads with Anne's face is held in the Peter Safar library in his eponymous resuscitation center that bears his name in Pittsburgh. You can even ask to see it or tour the library. Great piece and thanks for getting this little piece of a great man's work out there for others to hear and see.

John P Williams, MD
Peter and Eva Safar Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care

Dec. 08 2011 10:45 AM
Colleen Colley

Listened to this podcast at 0545 PST this morning, out for a dark, foggy run with the dog. This is a keeper (like so many of those masques!) because it is such a smorgasbord of fascination: science, history, medicine, romance, intrigue...I will never renew my cpr certification in the same frame of mind, again. Thanks!

Dec. 08 2011 12:21 AM
Bear Barnett from Boulder, CO

As I walked along the icy sidewalks of Boulder today I finished a call with a client that was requesting a small-group CPR course. I hung up and decided to play my favorite podcast. Lo and behold... how pertinent. This will help me enrich and brighten an otherwise dark subject matter.

Thank you very much,

Dec. 06 2011 07:21 PM
Emily from Wellington NZ

Hi Radiolab, I notice you say 'buenosairian' - at the end of the podcast.

FYI the ladies of Buenos Aires call themselves 'porteñas' which means literally ´people of the port´.

Cheers! Love your stuff!

Dec. 06 2011 05:05 AM
Tim Dickey from Dallas

And people from Dallas call themselves Dallasites. Great podcast!

Dec. 04 2011 04:25 PM
settysoutham from Santiago, Chile

Nice piece and cute ending. Just fyi, people from Buenos Aires are called porteños.

Dec. 04 2011 08:29 AM
Krista Brennan from Sydney

As a matter of fact, Charles, there is a massive art history connection here.
I'm an artist, and I've been studying traditional techniques for many years at an atelier-style school in Sydney. There is a large collection of plaster sculptures for us to draw when honing our techniques, as the great masters of old did. Most of the casts are copies of those you might have found in any 19th century atelier (we even have copies of David's facial features, Pope Innocent, Voltaire and Beethoven's death mask) and amongst these many works is this young woman. I've even drawn her!
The story my teachers told is the Paris version of a young lady drowned, but there is one interesting addition with regards to the 'smile'.
She is often brought out when discussing facial anatomy, to show certain muscles around the mouth. The smile, we are told, is merely the effects of rigor mortis, tautening the muscles, which allows us to see those muscles in operation. Science takes the mystery out of beauty!

Dec. 02 2011 08:17 PM
Jim Price from Wisconsin

In the 1960s, I blew into my first resusci Anne as a Boy Scout. Back then it was just for artificial respiration. Anyway, the story we were told was that a bereaved father had the Anne model made because his actual daughter, Anne, had drown accidentally. The doll was both a tribute as well as the father's contribution to preventing accidental drowning. I later taught CPR in the 1990s, and if asked about her origin, I told the Boy Scout version. I think now I would have been better off saying that she was the ghost of revisionist revival.

Dec. 02 2011 01:17 PM
Will from Los Angeles

Sean: And the CPR dummy has this face.
Jad: That you suck on.
Sean: No, you don't suck on it. You blow into it.
Jad: That's what I meant.

That made me laugh out loud inappropriately at the work office. GREAT short!

Dec. 01 2011 03:04 PM
Teddy Phufner from Seattle

Boards of Canada Zoetrope (for commenter above), Stereolab, and Stars of the Lid all in one short? Whoever is doing the music is doing an AMAZING job. I've heard Keith Fullerton Whitman on another episode too. It's like you are using my personal music library!

Dec. 01 2011 01:21 PM
Judi from Vermont

Is it just me...or does she resemble Mona Lisa???

Dec. 01 2011 09:18 AM
Melvin from Paris, France

As a CPR educator in Paris, I found this story fascinating, thanks!

Dec. 01 2011 04:55 AM

just heard of this station4rm a friend ,since then i've enjoyed this site,thank you 4 the entertainment that makes and helps some think about these sections that this site offers

Nov. 30 2011 11:23 PM
Brentt Newman

Mystery solved ;)

Nov. 30 2011 05:54 PM
Patricia Clark from near Boston

Great story!

Nov. 30 2011 04:32 PM
Nicholas Louis from Chico, CA

I am a nurse who has trained on this mannequin for over 10 years.. Thank you for sharing this, it gives much more meaning when rectifying my CPR!

Nov. 30 2011 02:49 AM
Sean Magee from Portland, OR

L'inconnue de la Seine reminds me of "Les Yeux Sans Visage". Along with the two versions of Vanilla Sky/Wake Up, I wonder if you could do a show on face transplants (they became a reality just a few years ago).

Nov. 30 2011 01:48 AM
Miles Wimbrow from Baltimore, MD

Excellent choice of music @ around 9:40 from French band Stereolab for Radiolab doing a piece about a (supposed) drowned French girl :)

Nov. 29 2011 10:34 PM
Charles of San Diego from multiple

Thank you for another wonderful podcast.

I sense a resonance between L'inconnue and "Cadavre exquis", the surrealist pastime.

Any art scholars out there?


OK, I guess Art is dead, or art is Dead, as ye will, enjoy the photons ye choose to captcha'.

Be aware that there are people who think in far stranger modes that yew kin imagine, and be thankful. You evidently have given up, but we'll still stand, obtuse,ugly, and rejected, ignored among the bleats and moos of polite, comfortable NPR contributors.
We will continue to be here, loud, proud, and strange ,obstinate, and confusing, yet adamant: We will insist on remembering, long past the last NPR intern has burned out and left his coffee order unfilled.


yew feckin' basterds, remember what drew you to NPR.

Nov. 29 2011 10:13 PM

Wow, freaky and fascinating. Perhaps she did drown but was not in the water long? Maybe it was just a legend, but I can certainly relate to how it captured so many people's curiosity! I even googled to see what other death masks looked like by comparison, and I'm not typically up for morbid topics. In doing so, I ran across Pascal's. I think his also has that peaceful quality of L'inconnue.

Nov. 29 2011 02:03 PM

I've always been suspicious of the notion that L'inconnue was based on someone fished out of the river (and am glad the episode included someone skeptical of the idea).
To me she looks like someone trying to keep a straight face. I picture the guy putting the mold on her face saying "don't laugh- hold your face still or it won't cast right."

Nov. 29 2011 01:49 PM
WordsFreeMe from Miami

Awesome episode! I'm a CPR instructor for the American Heart Association and never stopped to think about the face of the manikins. Great story.

Nov. 29 2011 01:39 PM
Nate T. from SW US

@Benj - It is indeed Boards of Canada. It's "Zoetrope" off their "A Beautiful Place Out In the Country" single.

Nov. 29 2011 12:25 PM
Benj Funk from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Who is the artist whose music starts at 1:47?
Going through my Boards of Canada archive but can't quite place it...

Nov. 29 2011 10:42 AM
Jeff Kite from Munich


Some of my best friends are Cornish. I'm sure they will be in touch. tsk tsk.

Love the show guys! Keep them coming.

Bestest, Jeff

Nov. 29 2011 09:37 AM

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