Origins of ordinary things: Stethoscope

By Elizabeth Buhungiro

When you go to a hospital and you see someone wearing a white lab coat and a metallic device hanging around his/her neck, you know without anyone telling you that that person is a doctor.


The metallic device is called a stethoscope. According to the American Diagnostic Corporation, the name of the device was derived from two Greek words: “stethos” which means chest and “scopos” which means examination.


Previously, doctors were identified by clear glass jars they carried popularly known as urine flasks since the non-existence of technology compelled them to use the colour, smell and taste of urine for diagnosis. Doctors also wore wigs. This is according to The Guardian, a United Kingdom media house.


The stethoscope was invented 200 years ago by French physician René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec for the purpose of diagnosing chest conditions through auscultation-listening to internal sounds. According to ThoughtCo, a knowledge platform, previously, a doctor had to place his ear on a patient’s chest to listen to sounds or else place his hand on the patient’s chest. This was ineffective and uncomfortable, especially if the patient was female. There were no licensed female doctors at the time.

Laennec’s first attempt at solving the problem was to place a rolled piece of paper between his ear and the patient’s chest. Later, he drew inspiration from the design of a hearing aid called a trumpet to make the stethoscope in 1816. According to Wikipedia, an encyclopedia, the original stethoscope had a wooden tube and listening was done with one ear.

To make a connection between certain sounds and medical conditions, Laennec listened to the internal sounds of people before they died and correlated them with the results of autopsies. An example of this, according to Nurse Job, a medical site, is that he found that the chest of a person with fluid beneath their lungs made a bleating sound.

Laennec’s stethoscope was improved by Arthur Leared, an Irish physician in 1851, by making it bi-aural so that doctors could now listen with two ears. The following year, George Philip Cammann perfected the design, standardised it and began commercial production of the stethoscope as we know it today.

Other improvements in the way that the stethoscope works include amplifying the sound, distinguishing sounds, reducing external noise, and making it portable. Additionally, according to the Science Museum in the United Kingdom, the device was modified so that it was no longer only for the chest but also for listening to bowel sounds and foetal movements. 

During the 1890s, the wooden part of the stethoscope was replaced with rubber and later, plastic.

With advancement in technology, there are now many other devices which effectively show the state of internal organs. However, the stethoscope is still useful because it is cheap and effective. Moreover, physical interaction between doctors and physicians is imperative to psychological healing. 

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