Towards the end of the 1700s the practice of medicine in Europe was undergoing revolutionary change. Doctors were beginning to recognise that diseases were not patchworks of symptoms, but instead were caused by underlying disorders in the tissues within the body. Autopsies (dissection of patients after death) became an important means for learning about the nature of disease while listening to the sounds within the living body became an important way of finding out how tissues and organs functioned.
A French physician, Rene Laennec, made an enormous contribution to the practice of auscultation (listening to the body) when, as he related, "I recalled a well-known acoustic phenomenon: namely, if you place your ear against one end of a wooden beam the scratch of a pin at the other extremity is distinctly audible". Laennec's first stethoscope was a tightly rolled sheet of paper, and in 1819, after much experiment, he published a description of his first proper stethoscope, a wooden cylinder with a central canal.
Laennec's later models were modified, chiefly by narrowing the section between the ear and chest pieces. This change established the basic shape of the monaural stethoscope which remained popular until the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless many modifications were made: shape and length were altered; different materials were used; rubber tubing was included to make the stethoscope flexible; sectioned stethoscopes were made for ease of carrying in pocket or top hat.
Arnold & Sons 1895 London catalogue of surgical instruments lists 28 different monaural stethoscopes. At the same time it also advertiseed 13 binaural stethoscopes. The type of stethoscope was developed in the 1850s to allow the listener to use both ears and was the most popular stethoscope in use by the end of the 20th century. Nevertheless, monaural stethoscopes are sometimes still used, especially by midwives listening to the heartbeats of an unborn baby. One of the stethoscopes in the collection donated to the Powerhouse Museum is specifically labelled as a foetal heart stethoscope and there are other types in the collection that would be have been used for the same purpose.
Megan Hicks, Curator of Medicine, February 2007
Porter, Roy, The greatest benefit to mankind: a medical history of humanity from antiquity to the present, HarperCollins, 1997, pp.610-612.
Arnold & Sons, Catalogue of surgical instruments and appliances, London, 1895.
Concise Medical Dictionary, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1989.
This acoustic 'Littmann style' stethoscope was manufactured in Australia by Surgico Pty. Limited in 1987.
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