Remembering Rene Laennec, the man behind your heartbeat

17 Feb 2016

Rene Laennec (1781-1826) with stethoscope, via Wikimedia Commons

Google’s latest Doodle celebrates the work of French physician Rene Laennec, the man credited with inventing the first-ever stethoscope.

Every football referee has a whistle at all times, every orchestra composer has a little stick thing, every town crier a bell. But what of doctors? Well, they have a stethoscope, of course, thanks to Rene Laennec.

The Frenchman made one of the simplest, most effective innovations in diagnosis technology 200 years ago, with just a couple of tweaks here and there (and key Irish influence in between) all that has changed in that time.

Future Human

Prior to Laennec’s creation, the preferred method of hearing patients’ breathing or heartbeat was for a doctor to stick an ear up to their chest and try make out what was going on. What of overweight people, you ask?

Well, Laennec spotted the problem and got working on a rudimentary hack. He got a bit of paper, made a tube and placed it in between his ear and his patient’s chest and bingo, medtech leaped forward.

Rene Laennec

Rene Laennec remembered in a Google Doodle

Novel idea

“In 1816, I was consulted by a young woman labouring under general symptoms of diseased heart, and in whose case percussion and the application of the hand were of little avail on account of the great degree of fatness,” he wrote in 1819.

“The other method just mentioned [direct auscultation] being rendered inadmissible by the age and sex of the patient, I happened to recollect a simple and well-known fact in acoustics … the great distinctness with which we hear the scratch of a pin at one end of a piece of wood on applying our ear to the other.

“Immediately, on this suggestion, I rolled a quire of paper into a kind of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear, and was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.”

Simplicity personified

So simple, it’s amazing nobody had done this before. However, Laennec’s creation wasn’t exactly perfect. So, step forward Irishman Arthur Leared who, in 1851, improved it by making it biaural, meaning both ears could be utilised.

A year later, George Cammann tweaked it again and, just like that, it was available for widescale adoption.

Laennec was a famous physician in his time, working on treating a number of major diseases in the early 19th century, such as peritonitis, cirrhosis and tuberculosis, the latter of which had hit his family hard.

During his final months, in 1826, his health failed rapidly. At the time he asked his nephew Meriadec to use his stethoscope to check his chest, to attain some form of diagnosis of his ailment.

A paper on his life, published in Clinical Medicine and Research back in 2006, noted the unfortunate irony surrounding his death.

“By his own invention, he could no longer escape the ironic truth that he was dying from cavitating tuberculosis – the disease that Laennec helped to elucidate and understand with his stethoscope would soon take his life.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic