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René Théophile Hyacinthe Laennec (1781-1826)

French physician René Théophile Hyacinthe Laennec invented the stethoscope. It helped doctors listen to the sounds of patients’ bodies. Laennec began his medical studies with his uncle, a doctor in Nantes, but the French Revolution interrupted his training. He served as a medical cadet in the revolutionary army before moving to Paris in 1801 to continue studying.

Laennec was an outstanding student, receiving several prizes, and had a gift for pathological anatomy. His teacher Corvisart introduced him to the diagnostic technique of percussion, which Corvisart had learned about from a publication by Austrian physician Auenbrugger. Laennec’s political conservatism long prevented his appointment to a prestigious academic post. It took until the French monarchy was restored in 1815 for him to receive a position at the Necker Hospital, and later at the Paris Medical School.

Laennec made an observation around 1816 which changed diagnosis history. He was consulted by a young female patient with heart problems. Laennec considered it improper to listen to her heart by putting his head on her chest. Instead he rolled a piece of paper into an elongated tube. He placed one end on the patient’s chest and the other at his own ear. The tube communicated the sounds of the heart, and so helped him diagnose his patient without jeopardising her modesty. He subsequently developed a robust wooden tube to replace the paper tube, calling it the stethoscope. The instrument helped doctors diagnose by supporting their natural sense of hearing. It also supported Laennec’s belief that diseases are caused by pathological alterations, so-called ‘lesions’, located in specific parts of the body.

 

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Bibliography

J Duffin, To See with a Better Eye: A Life of R. T. H. Laennec (New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1998)

J Duffin, ‘Laennec’, in W F Bynum and H Bynum (eds), Dictionary of medical biography, Vol. 3, (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 2007), pp 757-61

R Laennec, De l'auscultation médiate (On Mediate Auscultation) (1819)

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