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Percussion and Auscultation

A physician performing percussion.

A physician performing percussion.

Credits:Wellcome Photo Library, London

The Greek physician Hippocrates used auscultation (from the Latin for "listen") as a diagnostic technique. He suggested that medical practitioners press their ear to the patient's body to investigate the sounds of disease, such as the splashing of accumulated fluids. In the 1700s, the Austrian physician Joseph Leopold Auenbrugger additionally developed the method of percussion. In percussion, the doctor taps parts of the patient's body with his or her fingers or with a hammer-like instrument called a "percussor". The resulting sounds and vibrations can reveal the presence of fluid or a hardening of the tissue. Auenbrugger published his observations on the new diagnostic method in a book, but few doctors read it in the following decades. Practitioners did not adopt Auenbrugger's idea until around 1800, when the French doctor Laennec developed the stethoscope, an instrument designed to listen to the sounds of a patient's heart or lungs. To the present day, percussion and auscultation are central elements of medical diagnosis, and the stethoscope has become a characteristic element of a doctor's appearance.

Bibliography

M Nicolson, ’The art of diagnosis: medicine and the five senses‘, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopaedia of the History of Medicine, Vol. 2 (London: Routledge), pp 801-25

S J Reiser, ’The science of diagnosis: diagnostic technology‘, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopaedia of the History of Medicine, Vol. 2 (London: Routledge), pp 826-51

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