Monday, May 4, 2015

The Stethoscope Invented

19th Century Stethoscope with bell-shaped end.
My current work-in-progress is a novel which takes place during the Civil War. The heroine is a nurse and the hero a doctor. It occurred to me as the hero examined a patient, that I’d never seen pictures of a Civil War surgeon using a stethoscope. So, off I went on a research quest to learn when the stethoscope was invented.

Before the 1800’s if a physician needed to hear a patient’s lungs, heart, or bowels he merely placed his ear against the patient’s body. I can’t imagine how awkward this was for both the doctor and the patient. For women, it meant having a doctor lay his head between their breasts and some ladies refused to allow it. Although this method was somewhat effective, it was difficult for the doctor to hear everything, or pinpoint from where an unusual sound might have originated.  The ear often missed important clues, which could have helped them diagnose an illness.

Stethoscope-early wooded
The word stethoscope comes from the Greek word, stethos (chest) and the word, scopes (examination), and was invented in 1816 by Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826), a physician at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris. He’d been too embarrassed to press his ear against the large bosom of a female patient and instead rolled up a sheaf of paper like an ear-trumpet, in order to listen. 

Excited by how loud and clear the sounds were, he created the wooden aural stethoscope. Laënnec was skilled with a lathe and made his first stethoscope  from a turned piece of wood about 12 inches long with a 3/8 inch hollow bore. The doctor placed the smaller end against his patient’s chest and listened through the larger funnel shaped, opposite end.

In 1851 an Irish physician, Arthur Leared made the device bi-aural.
Stethoscope-early bi-aural

George Cammann wrote a major treatise on diagnosis by auscultation, which was made possible by the bi-aural stethoscope. He refined the stethoscope for commercialization in 1852.

I’m not certain how many Civil War surgeons had stethoscopes, but I decided my brilliant doctor carried one in the pocket of his frock coat.


Wilbur M.D., C. Keith, Civil War Medicine 1861-1865, The Global Pequot Press, 1998