The Incredible Invention Of The Stethoscope

Grace Higgins | June 2nd, 2020

In 1816 the invention of the stethoscope in the Hospital Necker in Paris was hailed as a new age of medical invention that would bring forth improved diagnosis for all patients. Created by Rene Laennec he went through a long and painstaking process of matching all the sounds he would hear during his assessment of his patient’s health to the changes in their bodies. Laennec is heralded as creating a new way of understanding the human body through the medium of sound.

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Using his wooden tube he would solve some of the body’s most inner puzzles by understanding buzzes, hisses, and vibrations. This pathed the way for using them as scientifically meaningful signs of health conditions and in 1819 he also went on to publish a huge 900-page analog on the art of the stethoscope. This caused its adoptions across Europe and America, making the stethoscope one of the most known medical symbols of today. Nothing says the doctor as much as holding a stethoscope.

Before 1816 doctors had no way to listen to a heartbeat or respiration other than using percussion, which was done by placing their hand on the patient’s chest. And this method did not involve any amplification, which means that doctors would miss many of the quiet sounds. Pressing an ear to a patient’s chest was often used as a key traditional diagnostic method, but as you can imagine this was a big invasion of a patient’s personal space and created an awkward moment for the doctor.

Rene Theophile Laennec was inspired to make this moment less awkward. He was examining a young woman complaining of heart pains when he felt it was very improper to place his head against her ample breasts. He rolled up a piece of paper and placed it against her chest, suddenly he was amazed at how he could hear her heart and lungs. Realizing the potential of naturally amplifying sound, he created a wooden tube which was the first simple design of the stethoscope.

It was in 1851 when the design was modernized by Arthur Leared, an Irish physician, who created the version we know today where the doctor can listen using both ears. Today the best versions of the stethoscope can even digitize sound along with encoding and transcribing to be sent anywhere for evaluation.

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