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Laennec's stethoscope, France, 1815-1825

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As a medical practitioner, how can you find out about what is going on inside a patient's body? Especially when many causes and symptoms of disease are not immediately obvious. For a long time you would have had to be content simply to observe any outward signs of disease, such as skin colouration or pulse, or to investigate excretions of the patient's body, such as urine or faeces. Since the 1800s, however, you would have had another option – the stethoscope, an instrument to help you listen to the sounds of the patient's body. The French physician René Théophile Laennec (1781-1826) invented the stethoscope in 1816 after being consulted by a young female patient with heart problems. Subject to the social conventions of the day, Laennec considered it improper to listen to the sounds of her heart by putting his head directly on her chest. Instead, he rolled up a piece of paper into a tube and placed one end on the patient's chest and the other at his own ear. The tube communicated the sounds of the heart and helped Laennec diagnose the patient's condition. He subsequently developed a robust wooden tube to replace the makeshift paper one and called it a stethoscope – from the Greek words for "chest" and "explore". This is one of the original stethoscopes belonging to him. Made of wood and brass, it is a single hollow tube. The familiar binaural stethoscope, with rubber tubing going to both ears, was not developed until the 1850s. With such amplified sounds, diseases of the lungs, heart and vascular systems could be diagnosed much more easily and reliably.

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Glossary: monaural stethoscope

An instrument used to listen to sounds produced by the human body.

Glossary: stethoscope

A device which is used to listen to sounds produced by the human body. Ordinarily a stethoscope consists of rubber tubing in the shape of a Y.

Glossary: percussion

Practice where a doctor taps on parts of the patient’s body with his fingers or an instrument called a plessor. The resulting sounds and vibrations reveal the presence of fluid or tissue that has hardened.