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Techniques & Technologies

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Medical students listening to their heartbeats using a multiple stethoscope, c.1920s.

Medical students listening to their heartbeats using a multiple stethoscope, c.1920s.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

René Laennec  invented the stethoscope in 1816. While consulting a female patient, Laennec needed to listen to the woman’s chest. Before the stethoscope, doctors would place their ear directly onto the patient’s chest, a practice called auscultation. As the patient was somewhat overweight, Laennec thought it both improper and inadequate to place his head on her chest and listen directly. He rolled up a sheet of paper into a tube and placed one end on the patient’s chest. The tube magnified sound, and Laennec found he could hear her lung sounds easily by putting his ear to the open end. The rolled up piece of paper was soon replaced by a hollow wooden tube. Laennec named his invention the ‘stethoscope’

By the 1850s, the stethoscope had become one of the doctor’s vital tools. Learning to listen and diagnose the sounds from the chest became an important part of a doctor’s training.

In the 1890s, the hollow wooden tube was replaced by the rubber and now plastic, binaural stethoscope, much like stethoscopes that are used today. These stethoscopes have two ear pieces and a bell-like end that is placed on the body. Stethoscopes are not only used to listen to the chest but also other parts of the body such as the bowels and during pregnancy. Electronic stethoscopes that amplify the sounds in the chest and produce graphs were first produced in the 1970s and continue to be refined. Today, a stethoscope around the neck is one of the most popular images of the medical profession.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


J Duffin, To See with a Better Eye: A Life of R. T. H. Laennec (New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1998)

J Duffin, ‘Laennec’, in W F Bynum and H Bynum (eds), Dictionary of medical biography, Vol. 3, (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 2007), pp 757-61

R Laennec, De l'auscultation médiate (On Mediate Auscultation) (1819)