cf Elisabeth Bennion, Antique Medical Instruments, London 1979 pp 165 - 167, Elisabeth Bennion, The History of the Stethoscope, Antique Collector, July 1988 pp 38-43
P.J. Bishop, Evolution of the Stethoscope, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol 73. June 1980 pp 448 - 456.
Dr René Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec, Inventor of the Stethoscope, 1781 - 1826
Born in Brittany in 1781, the young Laennec after a conventional childhood was admitted as a third class surgeon's assistant or otherwise a Student of Military Medicine, at the Hotel Dieu, the principal hospital in the city of Nantes. Soon afterwards civil war broke out in the Province of Vendee immediately to the South and the hospital became the main casuality clearin station. The fighting was protracted and bitter, being the last-dith stand between French Royalists and the troops of the emergent Bonaparte. Laennec gained rapid and wide experience.
In 1801 he moved to Paris to finish his studies, qualifying on the 11th June 1804 at the Hospital Bichat, where he studied under the famous Dr Dupuytren. He was a popular young man and acquired a private clientele as well as continuing his work in teh public hospitals.
In November 1816 he was crossing the courtyard of the Louvre on his way to see a young patient. She was shy, timid but also very corpulent. Laennet knew that to place his ear against her chest would be difficult and embarassing. He then watched two small boys playing with a log of wood lying on the ground: they were tapping messages to each other through it. At the patient's house Laennec called for a sheet of card and rolled it into a cylinder; he found it magnified the sounds in the patient's chest and with his musical ear he could easily distinguish them. (As a keen amateur musician he could play six different instruments - flute, violin-cello, hautbois, bassoon, hunting horn and harp.)
On his return to his hospital he instructed his nine students to make up similiar paper cylinders. Later they had some more turned out of walnut or fruitwood. They called it a "stethoscope", from the Greek, "... I hear ... at a distance".
After three years' experience Laennec published, on the 14th August 1819, "L'Auscultation-Mediate", which described the new diagnostic instrument and its uses. His fellow practitioners welcomed it not simply for that, but it conveniently removed their heads a short distance from verminous patients in the paupers' hospitals and infectious patients anywhere.
In January 1820 Laennec's invention was published in London in the Medical Surgical Review, which devoted 35 pages to it. A year later, in Boston, Mass., it was described in The New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, Volume X, No. 2.
Laennec's discovery soon became standard equipment for every Doctor, although the instrument was much modified as the century progressed. For similar examples, see the Musee de la Medecine, Paris, The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C., although surviving examples of this model are now extremely rare.
Laennec died of conosumption (TB) on 13th August 1826. His was the first great advance in 19th Century medicine, although his name is oftne unrecognised by present-day doctors.