The Stethoscope and How It Came to Be

Written by on November 21, 2012 in Technology - No comments | Print this page


Besides the white coat, doctors are iconic for their constant use of their stethoscopes. (The odd-looking instrument they use to listen to your heart.) Stethoscopes have been around longer than living memory; we rarely think about where it originated or whose genius produced it.

Stethoscope’s Basic Principle

We have been taught about the basic principles of amplified sound since childhood. Who hasn’t used homemade telephones? (Two tin cans connected by the opposite ends of a string.) But in the 18th century, it was a new concept to use sound as a way of diagnosis.

Leopold Auenbrugger (1772-1809) was the first to use this concept. He would tap the chest and listen for the varying sounds. He got this idea from watching his father tap water barrels to discern how full they were. The same principle is applied to the lungs–which can fill with fluid. Filled lungs will have more dull, solid sound.

The Man Who Invented the Stethoscope and His Amply-Endowed Patient

In 1816, a prudent man named Rene Laennec was confronted with treating a young (and very plump) woman. He suspected that she had heart disease. But when Rene tried to listen to her heart by placing his ear to her back, he discovered that she was too “fat” for him to hear her heartbeat. Also, he didn’t want to try to listen to her heart through her chest–she was rather well-endowed because of her weight.

Caught between propriety and medical work, he remembered seeing two boys playing with a long stick. One would place his ear on one end and listened to the amplified sound as the other boy scratched pin on the other. So he rolled up a piece of paper and placed that against her chest. Not only could he hear her heart more clearly, but he was able to hear it better than direct contact.

He worked on refining this instrument for three years before he perfected it. Using the instrument he created, he proceeded to make many advances in medicine, particularly in the field of lung diseases. He went on to describe and discover lung diseases using his new invention. However, he fell victim to the very disease he was curing; he died of tuberculosis in 1826.


The basic concept and technology used in stethoscopes haven’t changed over the years. The stethoscope works in the same way an ear drum does. Air is trapped within the diaphragm, and the air is pushed through the air tubes into your ears. Nowadays, there are also electronic stethoscopes that are used as hearing aids for physicians with ailing ears. In the end, all it does is transfer and amplify sound–and it is still essential for diagnosis today.

Today, every medical supplier sells a variety of stethoscopes. After its invention, it took a while for this innovation to be accepted and utilized by the rest of the medical world. Even the physician, Lewis A. Conner, who founded the American Heart Association, wouldn’t use one. But after over a hundred years, the stethoscope, which is a part of the first wave of instruments to determine diagnosis, is still widely used more than ever.

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This is a guest post.  Claire Hunt is a freelance writer who specializes in medical-related issues. She writes for This website contains helpful information about CIA Medical, which is a distributor of a wide range of medical supplies from well-known brands, like Terumo and Braun.


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