THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 17

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. 

Sources:

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

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