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The Invention of the Stethoscope

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.

Plaque at Hopital Necker commemorating Laennec's discovery. Luca Borghi, Wikimedia
Plaque at Hopital Necker commemorating Laennec’s discovery. Luca Borghi, Wikimedia

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