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Joseph Leopold Auenbrugger (1722-1809)

Austrian physician Joseph Leopold Auenbrugger introduced the method of percussion to medical diagnosis. Auenbrugger’s father, an innkeeper in Graz, could afford to send his son to medical school in Vienna. He graduated from there in 1752. Auenbrugger spent several years working at a military hospital in Vienna before opening a private practice. He developed the diagnostic method of percussion in 1754 while still working at the hospital. It involved tapping parts of the patient’s body with his fingers or with an instrument to detect the presence of fluids.

Some accounts say Auenbrugger learned the technique when he saw his father tapping wine barrels to determine how full they were. However, Auenbrugger was also a gifted amateur musician who wrote the text for an opera composed by Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart in Vienna. The physician conducted experiments around the new technique. He filled the lungs of dead bodies with fluids to investigate the relationship between sounds and fluid levels. In 1761, Auenbrugger described using percussion in diagnosis in a book. He was knighted in 1783 for services to medicine. However, his work on percussion was largely ignored until the early 1800s, when Laennec and other French physicians adopted it.

 

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Bibliography

W Keith, ‘Chest medicine’ in S Lock, J Last, and G Dunea (eds), The Oxford Companion to Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001)

R Jütte, ‘Auenbrugger’, in W F Bynum and H Bynum (eds), Dictionary of medical biography, Vol. 1 (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 2007), pp 137-8

J Lachmund, ‘Between Scrutiny and Treatment: Physical Diagnosis and the Restructuring of 19th Century Medical Practice’, Sociology of Health and Illness, 20/6 (1998), pp 779-801

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