Happy 200th Birthday to the Stethoscope

JANUARY 05, 2016
Greg Kelly
“Most of the successful people I've known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
—Bernard Baruch
 
One of the traits that made my father an excellent clinician was that he was a good listener. This I leaned from his patients. And one of things he did a lot of listening with is celebrating its bicentennial this year.
 
It was a common sight in the household in which I grew up. The doctor’s distinctive listening tool—the stethoscope. I always remember my childhood friends being fascinated by my physician-dad’s stethoscope and I myself still think it’s a pretty cool item.
 
This year, 2016, marks the stethoscope’s 200th birthday. Invented by a French physician, René Laennec, in 1816 it is perhaps the true symbol of medicine. First used in a Paris hospital, the story goes that Dr. Laennec invented the stethoscope because he wasn’t comfortable putting his ear on the chest of a woman to hear her heart.
 
Born in 1781 and raised by one uncle who was a priest and another uncle who was a medical school dean, Laennec was, like most doctors, a superior student. Although his lawyer-father tried to discourage him from a medical career, he would go on to become the father of clinical auscultation (listening to the body’s internal sounds so as to exam the circulatory and respiratory systems).
 
According to a very good profile of this pioneering physician by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Dr. Laennec “wrote the first descriptions of bronchiectasis and cirrhosis and also classified pulmonary conditions such as pneumonia, bronchiectasis, pleurisy, emphysema, pneumothorax, phthisis, and other lung diseases from the sounds he heard with his invention. He perfected the art of physical examination of the chest and introduced many clinical terms still used today.”
 
In writing the classic 1819 treatise on his application of clinical auscultation, he offered: “I happened to recollect a simple and well-known fact in acoustics ... the great distinctness with which we hear the scratch of a pin at one end of a piece of wood on applying our ear to the other. Immediately, on this suggestion, I rolled a quire of paper into a kind of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear, and was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.”
 
Dr. Laennec, who was also trained by Napoleon’s personal physician, died of tuberculosis in 1826 at age 45. According to the NCBI story, “during those last months, he asked his nephew to auscultate his chest and to describe what was heard. The findings were as alarming as they were familiar to this great chest physician who had heard the same sounds a thousand times before. By his own invention, he could no longer escape the ironic truth that he was dying from tuberculosis—the disease that he helped to elucidate and understand with his stethoscope would soon take his life.”
 
With today’s amazing technological advances in medical care, one might think the stethoscope will become a relic of the past—an antique. For many doctors maybe that’s the case even today. But I believe my father’s skill and success as a healer was established through his closeness with the patient. His humanizing hands-on approach to healthcare. It was a bond that went both ways. And that ultimate connection with the patient usually began with his stethoscope.
 
Thanks Dr. René Laennec!



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