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The first stethoscope was created by Rene Theophile-Hyacinthe Laennec in 1816. A physician at the Necker-Enfants Malades hospital in Paris, France, Laennec was inspired when watching children playing with hollow sticks. He noted how the sound was amplified when scratching one end of the stick while listening at the other end. Doctors at that time would drape a handkerchief over a patient’s chest to avoid direct contact when listening to their heart and lungs. Laennec went a step further by rolling several sheets of paper into a cone as a listening device, and the stethoscope was born.
Physicians have been listening to the hearts and lungs of patients by placing their ears on their chests, since the time of Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC). Laennec’s first stethoscope gave the medical field a powerful new tool. He soon went on to devise the first prototype of today’s sophisticated electronic stethoscopes. It was a cylindrical wooden tube comprised of three sections and was monaural, or single-channeled.
Laennec at first called his invention “"Le Cylindre," as he thought the invention too basic to merit an actual name designation. Eventually, he decided that “stethoscope” would suffice. The word “stethoscope” is derived from the Greek terms for “chest” and “examination.” Laennec’s dexterity as an wood-worker was instrumental to his creating the first stethoscope. He actually designed and milled his creation in a small work space in his house.
Over the years, several physicians further refined Laennec’s first stethoscope. George Cammann designed the first binaural stethoscope in 1852. This version was double-channeled, or with two ear pieces, and made with spiral-shaped tubes layered with silk and bathed in elastic gum. David Littman, a Harvard medical school professor, improved on the design in the 1960s by incorporating two internal channels into the device, as well as enhancing the acoustics. By the 1990s electronic stethoscopes were able to separate out any ambient sounds and boost the feedback of the heart and lungs.
Although Rene Laennec invented and created the stethoscope, which was employed to diagnose and study diseases such as tuberculosis, he actually succumbed to this very same disease himself in 1826. His invention revolutionized medical diagnostics. The modern stethoscope is able to listen to the faintest echo from the heart, intestines, as well as the faintest flow of blood within the veins. Laennec’s creation, now worn around the neck of virtually every doctor around the world, has become the standard symbol for the medical profession.