The Explorer

The story behind the world’s most important doll

Health
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 15, 2019
5 MINUTE READ
BY THE EXPLORER
Health
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 15, 2019
5 MINUTE READ
BY THE EXPLORER

The Resusci Anne doll has been used to train half a billion people in CPR. This is the story of how she was born.

Thirty chest compressions, two rescue breaths – repeat until the ambulance arrives.

Most people have an idea about what cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) involves. The CPR methods used today were developed the 1960s. Since that time more than 500 million people have been trained in CPR and countless lives have been saved.

This may not have been possible without a Norwegian pioneer with a passion for life-saving techniques and lifelike toys whose doll helped to train the general public in resuscitation and started a global movement to save lives.

Pioneer in flexible plastic

The story behind the world’s most important doll began in the 1940s, with Åsmund Lærdal. He was a Norwegian entrepreneur who, after trying and failing to enter the publishing industry, found his passion in toymaking.

Obsessed with quality and extraordinarily innovative, Lærdal turned to a brand-new material – flexible PVC plastic – in an attempt to make the toys as lifelike as possible.

“He used to experiment with making plastic toys in the oven at home,” says Jon Lærdal, Åsmund’s grandson. He is also head of the Resuscitation unit of Laerdal Medical, which focuses on resuscitating patients suffering from cardiac arrest.

Åsmund’s tireless strive for perfection bore fruit. At the end of the 1950s, his company launched the Anne doll, which became a huge success thanks to its high quality and lifelike appearance. Next came the Tomte car. Over 100 million copies of the toy were produced and it is still a collector’s item today.

Training had to appeal to people’s feelings

While Åsmund Lærdal was revolutionising the toy industry, an Austrian physician by the name of Peter Safar made an important breakthrough in resuscitation science. The doctor developed a method of resuscitating people in cardiac arrest that everyone could learn, not just health professionals.

It was a breakthrough that Åsmund had been waiting for, according to his grandson Jon.

“Åsmund lost his oldest daughter to a hospital-acquired infection. Just a few years later his son – my father – nearly drowned on a cabin trip at the tender age of two. Åsmund had to hold my father upside down and shake him to get the water out of his lungs. It was a traumatic experience that motivated Åsmund to spread the new and more effective life-saving techniques that had been developed at the end of the 1950s.”

Bjørn Lind, the sole anaesthesiologist in the southern Norwegian town of Stavanger, introduced Åsmund Lærdal to Peter Safar’s work on CPR. Lærdal’s reputation as the Michelangelo of flexible plastic made the two natural partners in collaboration.

“Åsmund Lærdal believed that CPR training had to have a certain element of realism. Performing compressions and mouth-to-mouth on a stranger was far out of people’s comfort zone in the 1960s. A training manikin was needed. One that was designed for learning, but also for feelings – not just pure mechanics,” says Jon.

Bjørn Lind, Peter Safar and Åsmund Lærdal set about designing a human-like, functional CPR training manikin. The doll was baptised “Resusci Anne” – and has been called “the world’s first patient simulator” and “the most kissed girl in the world”. Her face was based on the death mask of a drowned unknown woman who was pulled from the Seine in Paris in the late 1800s.

"Åsmund was really focused on making her seem real. He almost went as far as using real hair."
Jon Lærdal, grandson

From toy doll to training doll

Laerdal continued producing toys until 1978, but with the success of Resusci Anne, it became clear that the company’s future lay in resuscitation. The company changed its mission from “creating children’s joy” to “helping save lives”, and changed its name from Åsmund S. Laerdal to Laerdal Medical.

Today the company has a total of 1 600 employees in 27 countries, and a broad portfolio of physical and digital products and services for resuscitation, simulation, training and patient safety.

“Our strategy from 2013 to 2020 is to save the lives of 500 000 patients each year, by improving patient safety and recovery from cardiac arrest and by saving more babies and mothers during childbirth. Our vision from 2030 is to help our partners to save 1 million lives each year,” says Jon Lærdal.

Laerdal Medical is not the only player in achieving this aim. The year before he died, Åsmund Lærdal established The Laerdal Foundation, which allocates a portion of the company’s revenues to research projects in acute medicine. The foundation has been joined by the recently established venture capital fund, Laerdal Million Lives Fund, and the NGO Laerdal Global Health, which works to improve mother and child health in low-resource settings.

“Still too many babies and mothers die during childbirth. But with proper training we can do something about it. Some 7 000 babies and 700 mothers die from birth-related complications each day. Many of these could have been saved through safer births and better resuscitation. We were involved in a Helping Babies Breathe project in Tanzania. We found out that a training programme in opening airways, ventilation and CPR methods could reduce mortality by 47 per cent.”

According to Jon Lærdal, the core of Laerdal Medical and its affiliated organisations is still resuscitation. He and the rest of the Lærdal family remain passionate about continuing Åsmund’s life’s work.

“Once I was out in the field and met someone who just weeks after learning CPR had to perform it on his own father. We have heard about many similarly intense experiences,” he concludes.

Resusci Anne's face was based on the death mask of a drowned unknown woman who was pulled from the Seine in the 1800s.