The Development of the Stethoscope

Rene Laennec was five years old when his mother died of TB.  His father sent him to an uncle to raise.  Rene was always sickly and spent his childhood playing the flute.  When he was 12, he went to live with another uncle, who was a medical doctor.  Rene was inspired by his uncle’s career and decided to pursue a medical career as well.  Rene actually began caring for patients when he was 14, and at the age of 18, he was a third-class surgeon in a military hospital.

It was an observation of children playing that led him to develop the one item that every doctor uses, no matter their specialty.  The children were sending signals to each other using a plank of wood and a pin.  One child would place an ear to the wood and could hear the signal being sent by the other child scratching at the other end of the wood.

Shortly afterward, Rene had a patient with a heart issue who was quite heavy.  He could not use the standard practices to examine her heart.  Rene decided to make a tube out of paper to place against her chest.  He was surprised he could hear her heart and speculate on a diagnosis.

Rene then fashioned a wooden tube to press against the chest to hear the heart and lungs.  The tube was inspired by the flute.  He then began to make a systematic classification of heart/lung sounds which he then correlated with the patient’s disease once an autopsy was performed.  He became the pioneer in diagnostic medicine.  The tube he developed was called the stethoscope.  The terms he used to describe the various chest sounds are still used today.

Rene would continue his diagnostic work and identify many disease states by sound.  He was especially interested in the study of TB since it had led to the death of many of his family.  Unfortunately, TB was also the cause of Rene’s death at age 45.

Hidden heroes often are excellent at making connections between what would seem to be unconnected things.  Who would have seen the connection between a plank of wood and a pin and the stethoscope used by virtually every doctor?  Seeing connections is a very creative act and one that is often a necessary start to innovations.  Also, having a diverse background can be essential.  Would Rene have developed the stethoscope if he had not had the experience of playing the flute?

Imagine the connections that led to the stethoscope:  children playing, a flute, and a heavy-set patient.  Hidden heroes make these connections when others do not.

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“Realize that everything connects to everything else.”  Leonardo da Vinci

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