100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Stethoscope
Year of Invention: 1816

What Is It? A device that allows doctors to clearly hear sounds within the
body.

Who Invented It? Rene Laennec (in Paris, France)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

A simple stethoscope is the most basic, cost-effective diagnostic tool available to a doctor. It reveals precise and valuable information about the working of lungs, heart, voice, blood, stomach, and other internal organs. Amazingly complex and sophisticated high-tech tools have been added to a doctor’s diagnostic bag of tricks (X-rays, MRI, cat scan, endoscope, etc.). Yet it is still the stethoscope doctors grab first. It is the simple stethoscope you see doctors carry wrapped around their necks. A stethoscope is as basic and essential for a doctor as a calculator is for an engineer or accountant.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Even the earliest physicians in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt knew that listening to the sounds of the body was an important diagnostic step. The physician’s ear was pressed against the patient’s chest, side, or back so that the doctor could hear the sounds made by heart and lungs.


How Was the Stethoscope Invented?

In 1816, 38-year-old Rene Laennec was already a well-established Paris doctor and a well-respected diagnostician of breathing, lung, pulmonary, and other chest and abdominal cavity disorders (bronchitis, emphysema, tuberculosis, cirrhosis, etc.).

In the summer of 1816, Laennec was asked by another physician to examine and diagnose a young woman with breathing difficulty. Laennec’s normal procedure was to have the patient partially disrobe so that he could place his ear against a thin handkerchief covering bare skin in five spots: against the side under each arm, against each side of the upper back, and against the upper breast bone.

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