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Stethoscopes—now look hear

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 01 July 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:0607282
  1. Manique Wijesinghe, third year medical student1
  1. 1University of Southampton

Ultrasound stethoscopy will revolutionise the art of bedside diagnosis. Manique Wijesinghe describes the invention and development of the stethoscope and the importance of this new technology

Impress your mates at the pub with your startling repertoire of esoteric medical knowledge

The invention of the stethoscope by the French physician René Laennec in 1816 marked a revolution in the art of physical examination and bedside diagnosis.1 The stethoscope is the main instrument used for non-invasive investigation of almost any presenting complaint by today's physicians, and was the first technological aid in clinical medicine.2 Most commonly used to identify abnormalities of the heart and lung sounds, stethoscopes are also used to listen for bowel sounds. Research suggesting that muscle sounds characteristic of Parkinson's disease, where the normal mode of muscle discharge (Piper band sounds, frequency 40-50 Hz) is replaced by a pulsatile muscular activity of 10 Hz, can be identified by stethoscopy is rarely of clinical importance.3

The birth of the stethoscope

These were prophetic words indeed. Before Laennec's invention, physicians used the technique of “immediate auscultation” to listen to the chest—that is, direct application of the ear on to the patient's chest.1 This practice had obvious limitations, being in Laennec's opinion “as uncomfortable for the doctor as it was for the patient, disgust in itself making it impracticable.1

The stethoscope was invented when “a young woman labouring under general symptoms of a diseased heart” consulted Laennec.1 As …

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