Invention Geek – Invention of Stethoscope ?

Question from Cassie K.:
I was watching Antiques Roadshow and some expert was talking about old medical devices. He said the stethoscope was invented by a doctor who felt embarrassed listening directly to a woman’s heartbeat by pressing his ear to her chest, which was how they did that at the time. Out of respect he took a rolled up tube of paper and listened to her heartbeat that way… and it evolved from there.
Is that really true?

Dear Cassie,

The invention of the stethoscopes is one of those rare legends that is, in fact, true!

An early drawing of Laennec's original stethoscope.

An early drawing of Laennec's original stethoscope.

The stethoscope was invented in 1816 by Frech Physician Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec. The method of listening to ones heartbeat at the time involved placing an ear directly on the patient’s chest. Laennec found himself uncomfortable examining a female patient using this method.

Remembering a trick from childhood, he rolled up sheets off paper into a cylinder. He placed one end on the woman’s chest and the other end at his ear. He quickly discovered that the sound of the patient’s hearbeat was loud and clear through the tube.

Laennec named his new device the stethoscope, from stethos (chest), and skopos (examination).

Laennec’s original invention didn’t look much different than a rolled up tube of paper. More “modern looking,” flexible-tube stethoscopes would begin to surface later in the 1850’s.