Who invented stethoscope? How does it work?

A trip to the doctor could be a satisfying experience, whether we are having our regular check-up, treatment for an illness, or under a severe medical condition. Going to the hospital is a way to help us relieve pain and other diseases, as well as to maintain a healthy body. 

Every time we visit our local doctor, there is always one thing that we could notice. Doctors use a long tube-like instrument connected to their ears, which they usually use to hear sounds produced by our hearts, lungs, and other body organs. They often make a diagnosis using this apparatus. 

This long medical instrument is called the stethoscope. Although it may not be apparent, the stethoscope has been around since the 19th century. This widely used medical device originated hundreds of years ago and helped medical professionals in diagnosing and treating diseases. 

Using the stethoscope is one of the fundamental skills a medical student must learn. Despite its simple looks, it requires a trained ear and proper knowledge to use this device efficiently.

In this article, we are going to look into the history of the stethoscope, and mainly, who invented it?

The History of the Stethoscope

Since the ancient study of medicine, it is common knowledge that the heart is one of the most vital organs in our body. Our heart has a connection to every part of our body, and without it, life would seem impossible – at least for humans. 

That is why medical experts often examine the heart, particularly the sound it produces, to look for indicators if a patient is ill. Besides the heart, doctors also examine other major body organs, such as the lungs, intestine, arteries, and veins.

The earliest and simplest method to listen to the sounds these body organs produce is through auscultation. Auscultation is the act of listening to internal body sounds, which is usually done with a stethoscope. 

However, the stethoscope didn’t exist until the early 1800s. That is why auscultations before the invention of stethoscopes are practically challenging for both the patient and doctor. 

One of the most primitive ways to examine a patient’s internal body sounds is by immediate auscultation. The immediate auscultation is a procedure wherein the physician places its ear on the patient’s body directly, mostly on the chest. As strange as it sounds, this process is normal before the invention of the stethoscope. 

However, it is apparent that this process includes a lot of disadvantages. One thing to consider when directly placing the ear on the patient’s body is that it might confuse the doctor since the sound is not heard well. Another factor is the external noise, which is sometimes uncontrollable. Besides these two reasons, one factor seems to be evident when it comes to performing immediate auscultation. This primitive way of examining the internal sounds of a patient could bring up an awkward situation to both the doctor and patient – mainly if the physician is a guy, and the patient is a woman. 

This dilemma is the main reason why the French doctor Rene Laennec came up with the idea of the stethoscope in 1816. He was diagnosing a young female patient when he would need to perform immediate auscultation. This situation made him hesitant to perform the immediate auscultation, which led him to roll a sheet of paper for him to use in auscultation. 

The use of the paper aural tube produced incredible results; mainly, the sounds were significantly clearer. This result gave Laennec the interest to study its concept further, and later on, developed the first apparatus for auscultation. Laennec called this device a stethoscope, which he derived from two Greek words – stethos and skopein, which means chest and to see, respectively. The device Laennec invented is made from wood and was monaural. This instrument used by Laennec acts as an amplifier to have a clearer sound of the patient’s heart. 

Another breakthrough in the history of the stethoscope took place in 1851 when the Irish physician Arthur Leared improved Laennec’s design and developed the binaural stethoscope – which has an earpiece for each ear, unlike the earlier models. A year later, in 1852, George Cammann polished Leared’s version of the stethoscope, which he used for commercial production. The version of Cammann’s stethoscope became the standard for most medical professionals all over the world. 

The stethoscope of Cammann was used for more than a hundred years, wherein other scientists and doctors applied some modifications in its design. Over the years, until today, various experts in the field contribute to developing a better way to examine the internal sounds of a patient’s body.

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