Paper Tubes & the Acoustics of the Chest


(Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. Take note of the early stethoscope’s shape)

If you have ever been to a medical office, then you’ve most likely seen a stethoscope before. Stethoscopes are important diagnostic tools that allow practicing physicians to listen to your chest with ease. It is hard to believe that a tool used by millions all around the world started out as a simple rolled up piece of paper. Before 1816, doctors would place their ears against the chests of their patients. This practice was called auscultation, meaning an act of listening (Parker 115). René Laennec, a French physician in the 19th century, found it awkward to examine his female patients in such a way. Instead, he rolled up a piece of paper ad used the tube to amplify the sounds of the heartbeat (Parker 115). A local woodworker helped Laennec develop a less flimsy model that he could use everyday. The first stethoscope was a wooden cylinder that had a trumpet-styled end on one side and a drilled hole on the other that would be held to the ear. He dubbed this device the stethoscope after the Greek words for “chest” and “to listen” (Parker 115). With the help of the diagnostic tool, Laennec took careful notes of what different illnesses, such as bronchitis and tuberculosis, sounded like (Pickover 158). Unfortunately, Laennec died in 1826 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis with the use of the very tool he had invented.


(Photo Credit: The Medical Book)

By the 1850’s the stethoscope was commonly used among most physicians. The stethoscope finally began looking like the tool that we would recognize after George P. Camman, of New York, invented the first one with two separate ear pieces (“Stethoscope History”). Nowadays you can’t go in for a checkup without someone listening to your heart. As the Littmann company said, sometimes the use of a stethoscope is the first physical interaction that the doctor has with his or her patient, and it can been seen as a gesture that helps to breakup the tension in the room (“Stethoscope History”).

“By giving access to body noises-the sound of breathing, the blood gurgling around the heart-the stethoscope changed approaches to internal disease and hence doctor-patient relations. As last, the living body is no longer a closed book: pathology could now be done on the living”-Roy Porter (Pickover 158)

(If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!)

Until Next Time:



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