Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The stethoscope

Fiona Robertson
Scotland, United Kingdom

One of the most iconic tools of the medical profession is the stethoscope. Here we see René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec, a French physician, using his prototype monoaural stethoscope. It was a wooden cylinder one inch and a half in diameter, one foot long, and tapered at the end like a funnel. This embryonic version developed into the bell and dome in use every day. Laennec was born in 1781 and in 1802 was appointed chief physician at Necker Hospital, Paris, where he made his mark on medicine. The stethoscope was seen at first as an absurd idea by many of his medical colleagues, yet he continued to perfect it and eventually wrote his classic masterpiece on diseases of the chest, and mediate auscultation.

This picture shows him listening to a patient with consumption at Necker Hospital and being in close contact with him. He eventually died of tuberculosis himself in 1836; ironically diagnosed by his very own device. Perhaps he had some solace that by the time of his death, his life’s work was finally accepted.

Laennec at the Hospital Necker examining a consumptive patient by auscultation. Painting by Théobald Chartran (1849–1907).


  1. Charles Denison, A.M., M.D. The Essentials of a Good Stethoscope. (October 22, 1892).
  2. D. M. Cammann. An Historical Sketch of the Stethoscope. (April 24, 1886).
  3. Joel Stanley Reiser, Medicine and the Reign of Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

FIONA ROBERTSON is a senior medical student at the University of Dundee.

Spring 2015



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