The stethoscope turns 200

Dr. Laënnec.

2016 marks the 200th anniversary of the invention of the stethoscope – and the next great diagnostic tool may be just around the corner

December 14, 2016

Revolutionizing chest exams

In 1816, French physician Dr. René Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec felt uneasy about putting his ear to his young female patient’s chest. In an act of chivalry, he rolled a notebook into a tube in order to listen to her breathing and heartbeat.

Little did he know that his simple innovation would go on to become one of medicine’s great diagnostic tools.

Stethoscope: From the Greek, stētho, meaning chest, and skopos, meaning explore or examine.

Auscultation: From the Latin term auscultare meaning to listen. The act of listening to the body’s sounds, usually the heart, lungs, or bowels, to determine a person’s ailment.

Monaural: Of, related to, or involving the use of one ear.

Binaural: Of, related to, or involving the use of both ears.

Source: Oxford Dictionary

As it turned out, this hollow cylinder placed between the chest of the patient and the doctor’s ear produced results that were far superior to the previous method, which consisted of the physician placing their ear directly on the patient’s chest.

Dr. Laënnec called his invention the “chest examiner” and spent the next three years perfecting his initial design, settling on a hollow wooden tube, similar to a flute. The monaural device quickly became a breakthrough in the diagnosis and management of cardiac and pulmonary patients, and was used widely from its introduction in 1819 until the advent of rubber tubing.

In the mid-19th Century, Dr. Laënnec’s monaural stethoscope was further improved when an Irish physician, Dr. Arthur Leared, invented the binaural version in 1851. A year later, this design was refined by Dr. George Cammann in a model that closely resembles today’s version.

From its humble origins, the stethoscope has now become one of the most iconic symbols of the medical profession.

A new frontier in diagnostics

3-D electrocardiography in development at the University of Alberta.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Pierre Boulanger.

While the stethoscope remains an essential instrument, the pursuit of more powerful diagnostic tools continues to inspire researchers and scientists around the world.

For example, at the University of Alberta, principal investigators Dr. Harald Becher and Dr. Pierre Benoit Boulanger, are working on new ways to bring real-time 3D-echocardiography to clinical settings, opening up doors for this type of diagnostic tool to help many more patients.

By improving the signal, thereby leading to higher-resolution and better images, they hope to improve the versatility and utility of multi-view ultrasounds for both cardiac and non-cardiac imaging.

Drs. Becher and Boulanger are close to developing a prototype and the early results are promising. If their project proves successful, this made-in-Canada innovation could one day replace the stethoscope as the world’s best diagnostic tool!

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