It’s two hundred years since French physician René Laennec, in a flash of inspiration, invented and named the stethoscope. He started with a roll of paper and quickly progressed to a hollow wooden tube about 30cms long. Laennec specialised in treating the scourge of nineteenth century cities – tuberculosis – and found his new idea to be invaluable.
While not all were convinced that his invention was of much value, medical professionals from across Europe climbed onto their horse or into a carriage and travelled to Paris to learn about his ideas. Over the next thirty years, Laennec’s innovation, the monoaural (having a single earpiece) tubular stethoscope became a feature of many a doctor’s bag.
The stethoscope continues to evolve
While it was a huge step forward in diagnostic technique, the Laennec stethoscope wasn’t very convenient to use. It required the doctor to lean over their patient, which wasn’t always easy, particularly for physicians with their own mobility issues.
This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the invention of the stethoscope. Incredibly, today’s symbol of medical professionalism began life as a sheet of paper used to protect a young lady’s modesty.
Two hundred years ago, medicine was practised very differently from today. While many doctors enjoyed some formal education, their knowledge of human physiology was decidedly patchy. Anatomy was perhaps a little better understood, particularly where there was access to cadavers for study.
In part, development of most branches of medicine was also held back by social attitudes and conventions. Today there may still be a moment of awkward embarrassment when discussing some aspects of the body with a patient. Two hundred years ago, the importance attached to privacy could prevent physicians making proper examinations.
The Medisave team gets to see lots of cool, shiny and cutting-edge medical equipment every week. But we’re also fascinated by the gear doctors and surgeons worked with in the past.
Generations of medics carried out life-saving procedures with tools that now look better suited to a garden shed, and the implements that still survive give us fascinating insights into how modern techniques developed.
Lots of people, many of them practising or retired doctors, collect these relics of bygone medicine. They can make fascinating, if sometimes macabre, talking points while some are intriguing decorative objects.