The History of Stethoscopes

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The History of Stethoscopes Revealed

If there is one item a person can think of, without dread when going for an appointment with their doctor, it is the stethoscope. The nurse and the doctor will both have one hanging around their neck, to be used for taking your blood pressure or listening to your heart, lungs, veins or stomach.

Developed in the early 1800’s, the word stethoscope is a combination of two Greek words, stethos(chest) and scopos(examination). Doctor Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennnec was examining a young patient when he discovered he could clearly hear heart sounds when he rolled up a piece of paper to create a tube and place it in his ear. It was amazing that he could hear the sounds of the heart so clearly!! This discovery lead to the development of the first stethoscope which was made of wood and was used with one ear. It was quite similar to the hearing aid of that time which was called an ear trumpet.

In the mid 1850’s the stethoscope underwent a major improvement—it was made to fit both ears! Dr. Arthur Learned was to make enhancements, which were later improved by George Cammann in order to make it fit for commercial production. It was also at this time that the first written material on using a stethoscope to diagnose was written.

In the 1940’s further changes where made and the stethoscope now resembled what we see today in hospitals and doctors offices around the world. The two sided stethoscope was also invented, one side is used to listen to the heart the other is used for listening to the lungs. Only minor changes have been made since then. These changes include making them lighter, having better fitting earpieces, and are better at filtering out outside sounds.

There are several different types of stethoscopes. The most common type is the acoustic stethoscope. It may be used for taking blood pressure, listening to the heart, lungs, veins or bowels. An electronic stethoscope amplifies these sounds and these devices can even transmit sound wirelessly. The sounds from an electronic stethoscope can also be recorded and the sounds can be enhanced. This is especially helpful in research or training environments. A fetal stethoscope is a trumpet that amplifies the sounds of a fetal heartbeat when place against a mother’s stomach. Doppler stethoscopes measures the Doppler effect of reflected waves. It is also an electronic device.

Today, stethoscopes can be found in a wide variety of styles, colors and price ranges. Medicine would not be the same without them! It would be very difficult to diagnose and treat many conditions without having the amplification of todays modern devices to guide our physicians to specific medical conditions. Patients view their medical providers as much more competent when they have one hanging around their neck as they arrive for a medical examination. Young children can be placated at an office visit when allowed to listen to their own heartbeats or breath sounds. Imagine our world without them!

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