When most people picture a physician they probably visualize a man or woman in a white lab coat, a stethoscope draped around his or her neck. Still the most useful instrument for diagnosing cardiovascular disease, the stethoscope can also supply information about the intestines, veins, and arteries.
Until the early 1800s the only way to listen to a patient’s heart and lungs was to press one’s ear to the patient’s chest or back. In 1816 French physician René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826), the father of thoracic medicine, was preparing to examine an obese young woman in the usual way. He hesitated, perhaps embarrassed, or simply concerned that he could not make an accurate auscultation. Taking a sheaf of papers, he rolled them into a cylinder, pressed an ear against one end and applied the other to the woman’s bare chest. “I was surprised and pleased to hear the beating of the heart much more clearly than if I had applied my ear directly to the chest,” he reported.
Within about three years Laënnec had designed and manufactured a stethoscope (from the Greek stethos, “chest”) in the form of a foot-long wooden tube. Various monaural stethoscopes followed, and by 1850 there was a binaural stethoscope with rubber tubes leading to the ears, setting the pattern for the modern stethoscope. The first combination stethoscopes appeared in 1902; having both bell and diaphragm contact pieces, they could pick up both low- and high-pitched sounds.
Laënnec went on to publish his studies in the influential De l’auscultation médiate (1819). Appointed professor at the Collège de France in 1822, he became a physician at the Hôpital de la Charité in Paris in 1823.Rather ironically he died at age 45 of tuberculosis, a disease on which he was an expert.