This is for my daughter, who is a nurse.
The stethoscope is probably the most recognisable of all pieces of medical equipment, and even young children identify it as representing a doctor or a nurse.
So, when we were in Quimper, Brittany, and we read there’s a statue to honor the inventor of the stethoscope, we determined to find the statue.
It’s actually very easy to find, as it’s on one of the city’s main squares: Corentin Square. The square is dominated by the huge Gothic Cathedral of Saint Corentin, and is ringed by shops and cafes. To one side is a typical French carrousel, and the statue is close to this.
René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec was a French physician who studied at the Ecole de Médecine de Paris. He was born in Quimper in February 1781and died in August 1826. He invented the stethoscope in 1816 while working at the Necker hospital, and pioneered its use in diagnosing various chest conditions.
In 1869, thanks to a collection by a group of French doctors, a statue to the memory of Laennec was erected on the Corentin Square.
Laennec first studied medicine under his physician uncle in Nantes until he was called to serve as a medical cadet in the French Revolution. He returned to his studies in Paris in 1801 and was noted as an excellent student. He began working in the Necker Hospital when the French monarchy was reestablished in 1815.
How did the invention come about? The story goes that in 1816 shyness led Laennec to invent the stethoscope. He was examining a young woman complaining of heart problems. At that time, doctors generally listened to patients’ heartbeats by placing an ear against the patient’s chest, but the conservative Laennec was uncomfortable with this. So, he rolled a piece of paper into a tube and pressed it to her chest, allowing him to hear the sounds of her heart.
After this paper experiment, Laennec built several hollow wooden instruments attached to a single microphone at one end and an earpiece at the other, and named the instrument the stethoscope. The word comes from the Greek words ‘stethos‘ for chest, and ‘scopos‘ for examination.
The instrument was soon adopted across France and Europe, before spreading to the US. Laennec died in 1826 of tuberculosis, aged only 45, but was aware of the importance of his discovery, calling it “the greatest legacy of my life.”
The evolution of the stethoscope
The stethoscope we know today doesn’t look like that of Laennec, as it was monaural. In 1851, Irish physician Arthur Leared invented a binaural stethoscope, made of a durable plastic. Doctor Nathan Marsh of Cincinnati patented, also in 1851, the first commercially available instrument, made of India rubber and wood. However, it was too fragile to be widely used.
The next year, New York-based doctor George Cammann adapted the design for wider commercial production, using ivory earpieces connected to a metal tube held together by a hinge. Known as Cammann’s Stethoscope, variations of the design have been in use ever since. Cammann never patented his design, as he believed it should be freely available to all doctors.