Subject:  Invention – Stethoscope

Event:  Birthday of French physician Rene Laennec, 1781

It was baseball great Yogi Berra who said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” It is also true that you can hear a lot just by listening.  One man who exemplified the benefits of both watching and listening was a French doctor named Rene Laennec, who was born on this day in 1781.  

Today we take it for granted that doctors wear white coats with stethoscopes draped around their necks and shoulders.  This was not always the case.  From the days of Hippocrates — the father of medicine — physicians practiced the art of “auscultation,” (from the Latin verb auscultare “to listen”) by placing their ear directly on a patient’s body to listen to the internal sounds of the heart and lungs.  This was often embarrassing for women when examined by a male doctor. 

One day in 1816, when Rene Laennec was preparing awkwardly to listen to the chest of a female patient, he had an epiphany.  He remembered watching children play with long hollow sticks.  They would place their ear on one end of the stick, scratch the other end of the stick with a pin, and listen as the sound reverberated loudly through the stick.  Based on this memory, he rolled up a piece of paper into a cylinder and placed one end of it on the patient’s chest.  He was extremely pleased with the results:  not only was the use of the cylinder less intrusive, but it also allowed him to hear the beat of the patient’s heart more clearly and distinctly than he could with just his naked ear.  Laennec dubbed his invention the “stethoscope” from the Greek stethos — meaning “chest” — and skopein — meaning “observe.”

An original stethoscope belonging to Rene Laennec (Wikipedia)

Within two years of inventing the stethoscope, Laennec received a favorable review from the New England Journal of Medicine, which caused the majority of doctors to adopt the innovation.  In 1852, the stethoscope was improved when George Cammann produced one with two earpieces, the version we recognize today.

Both sadly and ironically, a stethoscope was used on Laennec as a patient when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He died in 1826 at the age of 45, only ten years after his great discovery (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did observation lead to the invention that helped physicians listen better?

Challenge – Once Upon an Invention:  What is another invention that has an interesting backstory?  Research an invention, and tell the story of its inventor and its origin. 


1- “Viewpoint: The curious history of the first stethoscope.”  March 1, 2010

February 17: Two Sources Day

On this date in 1942, the Voice of America (VOA), the United States’ government-funded multimedia news source, made its first radio broadcast.  With the world at war, the mission of the VOA was to combat Nazi propaganda, to promote American policies, and to boost the morale of its allies around the world.   

VOAlogo.pngAt the end of World War II and with the beginning of the Cold War, VOA began its first Russian-language broadcasts into the Soviet Union in 1947.  These broadcasts included news, human-interest stories, and music.  The stated purpose of the VOA at this time was to give listeners in the USSR a picture of what life was like on the other side of the iron curtain (1).

Congress did not enact an official charter for the Voice of America until 1976.  The charter, which was signed by President Gerald Ford, requires VOA to “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news” (2).

Today the VOA provides programming through the internet, mobile and social media, radio, and television in more than 40 languages.  Located in Washington, D.C., VOA serves an estimated weekly global audience of 187.7 million people (3).

From its first broadcast in 1942, the VOA made the following promise:  “The news may be good.  The news may be bad.  We shall tell the truth.”  One principle that assists its quest for accurate reporting is its “two-source rule,” which it instituted in 1981.  The two-source rule stipulates that the VOA will not report a news story until it has two independently corroborating sources or an eyewitness report from a correspondent.   It’s this principle that prevents the VOA from making mistakes in its reporting.  It also promotes the VOA’s reputation as a trusted, credible source for news.

Today’s Challenge:  Two Sources to Truth

What are some questions that you have, questions that you are truly curious about and that you do not know the answer to?  Select a question that you are curious about and research it.  Find at least two separate sources, and write a paragraph answering your question.  If the two sources do not corroborate a clear, single answer to your question, continue your research until you have at least two separate sources that corroborate your answer.  Use direct quotations, and cite your sources. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  It was very hard to get any records, so the only source for us to really hear what was happening was listening to the Voice of America. We would be taping all the broadcast and then sharing the tapes and talking about it.  -Jan Hammer



3-VOA History