Fact Check

Was the Stethoscope Invented to Preserve Modesty?

On one momentous day, French physician Rene Laennec rolled a sheaf of paper into a tube and placed one end on his patient's chest and his own ear at the other.

Published March 31, 2009

FRANCE - MARCH 11:  Reconstruction in the Lower Wellcome Gallery, Science Museum, London, showing French physician Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec (1781-1826), examining a patient with a stethoscope at the Necker Hospital in Paris. Laennec devised the first stethoscope in 1816 while chief physician at the Necker. It consisted of a single hollow tube; the familiar binaural stethoscope, with rubber tubing going to both ears, was not developed until the 1850s. Regarded as the father of chest medicine, Laennec demonstrated the importance of the instrument in diagnosing diseases of the lungs, heart and vascular systems. Ironically, he died of tuberculosis.  (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images) (SSPL/Getty Images)
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The stethoscope was invented thanks to a doctor's modesty.

No implement better visually identifies a physician than does the stethoscope, the acoustic medical device that enables medical personnel to listen to the internal sounds produced by the body. Stethoscopes have been used by doctors since their invention in 1816 by French physician Rene Laennec (1781-1826), who on one momentous day in his office rolled a sheaf of paper into a tube and placed one end on his patient's chest and his own ear at the other.

As Dr. Laennec described the incident in his writings, he "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."

However, while the "when" and "who" of that creation are well known, there remains a bit of question as to the "why."

According to some tellings of the moment that inspired Laennec to first conceive of using an implement to better listen to his patients' heart and lung sounds, it was the doctor's own sense of modesty that drove him to the unusual act of placing something substantial between him and his patient. The person he was treating that day was a young woman, and according to some accounts, although she did present as having a heart problem and thus he did indeed need to listen to her cardiac function, the good doctor did not feel it proper to rest his head against her bosom. (Other physicians of the day got around this matter of seeming indelicacy by placing handkerchiefs on the chests of female patients, thus at least creating a symbolic barrier between their ears and the actual flesh of those they were examining.)

Yet other accounts describe Laennec's inspiration as having to do with the woman's size: He feared he would not be able to get a good aural reading of her chest function due to how well padded she was and thus cast about for something that might serve to amplify the sound.

Whatever the cause of his inspiration, Laennec took what he'd learned from that examination and set about building an instrument which would assist him in better listening to heart sounds. His resulting "stethoscope" (from the Greek words stethos, meaning "chest," and skopos, meaning "observer") was a hollow wooden cylinder with a small funnel at one end.

While many authorities cite Dr. Arthur Leared as the inventor in 1850 of the binaural (two-earpiece) stethoscope, that honor more properly belongs to Dr. Charles J.B. Williams, who had in 1829 sketched the very same thing. In 1850 Dr. George Camman improved the existing design by substituting rubber tubing for materials previously used to transmit amplified chest sounds to the examining physician's ears. Few today would have difficulty in recognizing Camman's improved design as a stethoscope, as it looks very much like those used by doctors of the modern era.

Modern stethoscopes range from inexpensive models that can be purchased for about $10, which are useful for blood pressure readings but not that effective for listening to heart or lung sounds, up to ones that go for about $200, which are favored by cardiologists who need to be able to distinguish every sound made by their patients' hearts.


Acierno, Louis J.   The History of Cardiology.     Pearl River, NY: Parthenon Publishing Group, 1994.   ISBN 1-85070-339-6   (pp. 469-476).

Dyson, James.   "Save the Great British Inventor!"     Daily Mail.   16 October 2002   (p. 13).

De l'Auscultation Médiate ou Trait du Diagnostic des Maladies des Poumon et du Coeur.     Laennec RTH.   Paris: Brosson & Chaudé, 1819.

The Boston Globe.   "Ask the Globe."     9 October 1993   (p. 20).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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