The Story of Dr. René Laennec and His Stethoscope

Born in 1781 in Brittany, France, Rene Laënnec (1781-1826) was the doctor who invented the stethoscope.

Dr. René Laënnec (1781-1826)

In 1816, Dr. Laënnec was treating a young woman who complained of symptoms that were comparable to those experienced by a person with heart disease. The traditional method used to confirm this diagnosis was a technique called immediate auscultation (the action of listening to sounds from the heart, lungs, or other organs), which would have required Laënnec to place his head on the woman’s chest. Due to the patient’s sex and young age the doctor was too embarrassed to listen to her heart using this method. Instead, he remembered one of the tenets of acoustics and decided to roll a pad of paper into the shape of a cylinder and situate it between the woman’s chest and his ear. It is suggested that his invention was inspired by his experience as a skilled flutist and woodworker.⁠

Laennec Stethoscope Drawings – Wikimedia
Modern stethoscope c. 1890-1910 – Museum of Health Care 997002428
Monaural stethoscope c. 1860-1890 – Museum of Health Care 997002010
Laennec monaural stethoscope, reproduction – Museum of Health Care E20.097

The doctor was astonished by what he heard: this tube amplified the sounds of his patient’s heart! Laënnec realized that he had created an instrument that could be utilized to study the sounds of the human chest cavity. After three years of testing, the doctor designed the first stethoscope (derived from the Greek words “stethos” for chest and “skopein” for examine), which was a hollow wooden tube that measured 3.5 cm in diameter and 25 cm long. Using his instrument Laënnec identified two classes of normal lung sounds and five classifications of abnormal lung sounds. He was also the first to describe the auscultation of many thoracic diseases including pneumonia, pneumothorax and emphysema. Through his scholarship, Rene Laënnec introduced clinical terminology and methodology that are still used in medicine and has been named the father of clinical auscultation. ⁠

Interested in learning more about Rene Laennec? Check out To See with a Better Eye: A Life of R.T.H. Laennec by Dr. Jacalyn Duffin.

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Katrina Johnston <br>(Public Programs Assistant 2022)
Katrina Johnston
(Public Programs Assistant 2022)

Katrina Johnston received a Master’s degree in History from Queen’s University in 2021 and is currently an MA candidate in Classics.  As a student whose primary research focus is medical history she is delighted to have the opportunity to work at the Museum of Healthcare this summer. Katrina is excited to learn more about the long and intriguing history of medicine in Kingston, and as a public programs assistant she looks forward to highlighting some of these stories in blog posts and on public tours.  

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