In 1816, a French physician named René Laennec invented a non-invasive tool for “looking into the chest.” His inspiration came during an awkward encounter with a young woman suffering from symptoms of heart disease. To preserve her modesty and spare himself the embarrassment of placing his ear directly on her chest to listen to her heart, Dr. Laennec rolled a piece of paper into a tube and used it as a barrier device. His new invention not only helped to avoid an embarrassing situation but also improved on the direct method of listening to chest sounds and even amplified the sound of the heart. He called his invention a stethoscope (Greek for “I look into the chest”). It allowed physicians interested in diseases of the chest to fine tune their diagnostic capabilities; in fact, three years after inventing the stethoscope, Laennec published an important paper on classifying cardiac and respiratory sounds.
Laennec’s first monaural (one ear) stethoscope was a 3 cm wide and 30 cm long wooden cylinder. This was replaced about twenty years later by a trumpet shaped model with a removable earpiece, invented by Charles J. B. Williams (an English doctor and student of Laennec). These modifications provided improved acoustics and comfort for patients. They were also sensitive enough to hear a fetus in the womb. The narrow end would have been placed on the patient, while the larger, flat end would have been placed over the physician’s ear.
The monaural stethoscope pictured here is made of turned maple wood. Its removable earpiece has two sets of holes which enable the instrument to be used at different angles.
- Kravitz, Robert E. “A Look Back: The Monaural Stethoscope.” The American Journal of Gastroenterology 95, no.10 (2000).
- Silverman, Mark E. “Charles J. B. Williams: English Pioneer in Auscultation.” Clinical Cardiology 30 (2007), 532 -534.
- Weinberg, Fred. “The History of the Stethoscope.” Canadian Family Physician 39 (1993), 2223-2224.
|ACCESSION # (Web Link):||997002008 a-b|
|Object Name:||Monaural Stethoscope|
|Manufacturer (Country):||Unknown (Unknown)|
|Date Made:||Circa 1860-1890|
MM= Auscultation — stethoscope — monaural
About “From the Collection”
“From the Collection” was a project originally published in 2010 to the Museum of Health Care’s website by former Curator Paul Robertson, with the goal being to highlight some the Museum’s most unique items that might be missed in our collection. Each artifact is presented as a bite-sized story, related information, and a link to it’s fully detailed entry on our free online digital catalogue!
Posts in the “From the Collection” series were originally created with support from Funded by the Ontario Museums and Technology Fund. The support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, is acknowledged.