The stethoscope is the most recognizable piece of medical equipment in the world. The stethoscope is so recognizable that if you ask a child to draw a picture of a nurse or doctor, chances are they’ll have one draped across their neck.
For most of recorded history, the most advanced (and only) piece of diagnostic equipment available to doctors and healers for discovering whether their patient’s insides were full of black bile or infested with evil spirits was the one that comes standard on all humans – the ear.
That all changed in the 1800s when a French physician, having a hard time hearing, rolled up a tube, placed it to his patient’s chest, and completely changed the world of medical diagnostics.
Before There Were Stethoscopes
For thousands of years, going back as far as the Egyptians, doctors, and healers have known of the importance the inner workings of the body’s organs have to their patient’s health. In trying to assess the cause of illnesses and making their diagnoses, they used their ears to listen to all the burbles, lubs, dubs, crackles, bubbles, and wheezes going on inside their patient’s body.
And for thousands of years listening with their ear or auscultation, was the only way to hear all those sounds. While this worked to some extent, using your ear had some drawbacks. For one, to listen to a patient’s internal organs, the physician had to place their ear to the patient’s body. This is unsanitary both for the patient and physician, risking the spread of disease.
Secondly, for as amazing as the human ear is, its sensitivity is limited, only able to pick up a limited range of sound. And lastly, and perhaps more prevalent in the later years in Victorian times, there’s the embarrassment of the doctor having to place their ear directly to the bare chest of the patient.
This would be particularly an issue for a male doctor and a female patient. And if the woman, her husband, or male family member took offense, the doctor might just end up facing a duel at the end of the checkup. But leave it up to chance and frustration to advance technology and human history.
One fine day in the early 1800s, French physician René Laennec was having trouble percussing a patient. Percussion is the method where the doctor uses their fingers to tap their patient’s chest then listen to the internal sounds. Because René was having difficulty hearing the sounds, he rolled up his notebook, placed it to his patient’s chest – and listened. The result was groundbreaking.
How A Hollow Tube Changed Medical History
The improved sound quality that Laennec got from that simple tube was so intriguing that he began creating and experimenting with different, similarly designed devices.
He called his device a stethoscope, Greek for “looking into the thorax”.
For the most part, they were hollow wooden tubes with varying flared tips and cups for the ear, but all still pretty basic. Even with the simple design, Laennec’s crude stethoscopes gave him the increased audio quality to start making medical discoveries. These included:
- The lungs make a bleating sound with they have fluid beneath them, which he called egophony
- There are specific sounds that can track the progression of tuberculosis
Laennec published his results and soon doctors across Europe were using the devices to explore a range of new conditions, most notably the defining of bronchitis.
Although René Laennec died in 1826 at the young age of 45 (ironically from tuberculosis), his discovery paved the way to creating the modern stethoscope as we know it today.
The Birth Of The Modern Stethoscope
Even though there is a wide range of diagnostic technologies like MRIs, CAT scans, X-Rays, and more, the stethoscope remains the first tool that any doctor or nurse will turn to. However, it is no longer the wooden tube used by Laennec.
In 1851, the stethoscope got a major upgrade that turned it into the most widely recognized piece of medical equipment. The upgrade it received was invented by Irish physician Arthur Leared, which made it bi-aural, which is two tubes for hearing with both ears. It was further refined by George Cammann and began to be produced commercially.
Further improvements such as rubber tubing, tunable diaphragms, soft ear tips, and a bell for low-frequency sounds followed, but the basic design function is the same.
Today, even the best stethoscopes for doctors can be easily purchased online and used by anyone. They are easy to use, affordable, and easy to maintain and the key is to know how to safely clean your stethoscope.
The stethoscope has even received a digital upgrade, are digital and electronic stethoscopes better than regular ones? Why doesn’t everyone use a digital model?
It’s amazing to think that the most widely used piece of medical equipment that virtually defines a doctor, nurse, or medical professional all began with a piece of paper, rolled into a tube.