Laennec’s Baton: A Short History of the Stethoscope

Interesting to learn the history of the humble stethoscope. Has it now had its day though?

The Chirurgeon's Apprentice

2Since its invention in 1816, the stethoscope has become one of the most iconic symbols of the medical profession. Yet there was a time when doctors had to assess the inner sounds of the human body unaided. In 350 B.C., Hippocrates—the ‘Father of Medicine’—suggested gently shaking the patient by the shoulders, while applying one’s ear directly to the chest in order to determine the presence of thoracic empyema, or pus in the lungs. For over a thousand years, medical practitioners would follow in Hippocrates’s footsteps, relying on only their ears to diagnose chest infections in patients.

All this changed in the 19th century, when the French physician, René Laennec (below), was presented with a young, female patient who was ‘labouring under general symptoms of a diseased heart’. Laennec tapped on her torso with his fingers—a technique called percussion—to determine whether fluid was present around her heart. Unfortunately, this didn’t…

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