Stethoscopes

The first stethoscope was invented in 1819 by Rene Laennec, and enabled doctors to more confidently detect a heartbeat and identify the 'signs of death'.

Monaural stethoscopes

 © Australian Museum

The word 'stethoscope' is derived from the Greek words for 'I see', and 'the chest.' The first stethoscope was invented in 1819 by Rene Laennec. This invention enabled doctors to detect a heartbeat with greater confidence and helped Dr Eugene Bouchut to win a prize from the Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1846 for 'the best work on the signs of death and the means of preventing premature burials'.

After experimenting on dead and sedated animals, in combination with observations of dying people, Bouchut believed that if a heartbeat was absent for more than two minutes, a person could be considered dead. In the face of opposition, he extended the period to five minutes. Even with this concession, death determined by a lack of heartbeat was only slowly accepted.

Several of Bouchut's chief critics were fellow contestants for the prize. They advanced ideas like introducing leeches near the anus, applying specially-designed pincers to the nipples, or piercing the heart with a long needle with a flag at the end, which would wave if the heart were still beating.

Monaural stethoscopes (having only one earpiece), were used from 1819 and, by the 1850s, they were the mainstay of the physical examination. The monaural model did become increasingly obsolete by the 1860s with the invention of binaural stethoscope (having two earpieces) in 1852. However, they were still used by many doctors into the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


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