The Story of the Stethoscope

One might not automatically recognise the image below as that of an early version of the medical stethoscope. It certainly looks very different today. This blog focuses on the invention of this instrument, synonymous with the medical profession, over 200 years ago.


Laennec-type monaural stethoscope, France, 1851-1900. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY.


Where did it all begin?

The story of the invention of the stethoscope begins with a young French physician in Paris, René Laennec. It was in 1816 that Laennec was called to see a rather fat and buxom young woman with a ‘diseased heart’. Feeling awkward, embarrassed and improper at putting his ear so close to this woman’s chest in an attempt to listen to her heart, Laennec sought to find an alternative method. He described his predicament and later actions in the medical text De l’Auscultation Médiate, published in August 1819:

I happened to recollect a simple and well-known fact in acoustics, … the great distinctness with which we hear the scratch of a pin at one end of a piece of wood on applying our ear to the other… I rolled a quire of paper into a kind of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear, and was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.’

Laennec modified this method of a rolled up piece of paper to make a wooden cylinder, measuring 25cm by 2.5cm. He called this piece of equipment a ‘stethoscope’, the name derived from the ancient Greek stethos meaning ‘chest’, and skopein meaning ‘look at’. The stethoscope became an essential item in Laennec’s medical bag and he utilised it to listen to both the heart and lungs of his patients.



Although a few physicians resisted the introduction of the stethoscope, maintaining that it was best to listen only with one’s ear, the vast majority of the medical profession embraced its use. The invention quickly spread over Europe in the early 1820s and the design was further developed and improved upon. By the end of the nineteenth century, this wooden instrument had morphed into something more akin to the modern-day stethoscope. Flexible tubing, first made out of rubber, and then plastic, made the stethoscope both easier to use and transport; whilst binaural earpieces improved the quality of the sound for the listener. The stethoscope works by transmitting acoustic pressure waves from the chest-piece through the hollow tubes to the listener’s ears. Today, there are even more advanced electronic stethoscopes which amplify body sounds improving further the sound transmitted.


A 19thcentury stethoscope with a bell-shaped end. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.


The meaning of the stethoscope

The significance of a stethoscope in the twenty-first century cannot be under-estimated. It confers identity and, to a certain degree, status. Its wearer is automatically assured to be a member of the medical profession. It implies trust, understanding and knowledge. In this way, Laennec’s stethoscope is incredibly valuable, both from a diagnostic and symbolic perspective.




Further Reading

‘The story of Renee Laennec and the first stethoscope,’ Past Medical History. Available at:, accessed 9/3/19.

‘Stethoscope,’ Brought to Life – Exploring the History of Medicine. Available at:, accessed 9/3/19.



Lucy Havard


What looks primitive now was “cutting edge” then.

I recently presented a webinar for the British Institute of Radiology, looking at the developments of X-ray tubes. These tubes were developed in the 19th century and many contributed, including Michael Faraday and William Crookes. Whilst writing my talk I had several thoughts.

It is easy to look at early apparatus and see it as primitive, and the scientific issues involved appear quite straightforward. However this apparatus, which seems so basic to us was cutting edge science at the time. Little was known about what was actually going on in these tubes, and what the cathode rays actually were. It’s interesting to consider why Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and why they had not been discovered earlier. The tubes used by William Crookes in the 1870s would have produced X-rays, although they were not demonstrated. It was really only a matter of time before X-rays were discovered, however this should in no way diminish the genius of Röntgen. However William Crookes, Phillip von Lenard, or the Americans AW Goodspeed and William Jennings were all in a position to make the discovery. In Röntgen’s famous phrase, after he had observed something unusual “I did not think, I investigated”!

Cutting edge radiology apparatus in 1896, from Practical Radiography by H Snowdon Ward.
The picture shows the induction coil and battery with the X ray tube above

It also very difficult to put ourselves into the 19th century mindset. G W C Kaye writing in his classic X-Rays: An Introduction to the Study of Röntgen Rays (1919) wrote “In the early nineties (1890s), it was not infrequently maintained that the science of physics had put its house in complete order, and that any future advances could only be along the line of precision measurement.” In 1895 Charles Thurstan Holland had expressed similar sentiments regarding surgery. The discoveries of X-rays, followed in 1896 by the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel turned everything upside down, leading to a revolution in the scientific understanding of both of the world and of ourselves. This is the reason why I find the period from the early 1890s leading up to the First World War so very fascinating. In comparison, whilst things have changed since my student days, the transformation has not compared in scale to that earlier period.

My final thought when preparing for my webinar is as to why some figures are plucked out for fame, and others remain obscure? Coolidge,  Crookes, and Röntgen are well known; and yet A Bouwers who made major contributions to radiology remains undeservedly obscure.

Finally a webinar is a great means of communication, and is one the BSHM should utilise.

Adrian Thomas
Past-President BSHM