Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 8
René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec

by James Joseph Walsh


Born at Quimper, in Brittany, France, 17 February, 1781; died at Kerlouanec, 13 August, 1826, a French physician, discoverer of auscultation, and father of our modern knowledge of pulmonary diseases. He was the son of a lawyer of literary instincts who wrote poems which are said to recall those of his better known compatriot De Forges Maillard. His mother died when he was six, and the boy went to live with his grand-uncle the Abbé Laennec. At the age of twelve he proceeded to Nantes where his uncle, Dr. Laennec, was professing in the faculty of medicine at the university. He was wonderfully successful in his studies and obtained a number of prizes, learned English and German very thoroughly, and began his medical studies under his uncle's direction. At nineteen (1800) he went to Paris and almost within a year obtained there the first prizes in both medicine and surgery at the medical school of the university. He became a pupil of Corvisart, Napoleon's great physician, who had re-introduced into medicine Auenbrugger's neglected method of diagnosis by percussion of the chest. Laennec followed up the idea, so readily suggested by this, of listening to the sounds produced within the chest and, after twelve years of careful study and observation, laid the foundation of the modern knowledge of diseases of the chest. He also invented the stethoscope, the original employment of the instrument being suggested by his desire to save a young woman's modesty from the shock of having him listen directly to her chest. Roger sums up what Laennec had thus accomplished when he says that Laennec's ear opened to man a new world in medical science (Roger, "Les Médecins Bretons"). Laennec published his book on the subject in 1819, with the modest motto in Greek "the most important part of an art is to be able to observe properly." Prof. Benjamin Ward Richardson declared (Disciples of Æsculapius) that "the true student of medicine reads Laennec's treatise on mediate auscultation and the use of the stethoscope once in two years at least as long as he is in practice. It ranks with the original work of Vesalius, Harvey, and Hippocrates." Practically nothing of importance has been added to our knowledge of auscultation since Laennec wrote this book. Besides this he made very careful studies in pathology, especially on diseases of the liver. He was the first to study hyatids exhaustively, and it is to him we owe the name cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholic cirrhosis is often spoken of as Laennec's cirrhosis. He threw much light on sclerotic conditions generally. Unfortunately while studying tuberculosis over assiduously at a time when its contagion was scarcely suspected, he contracted the disease and died at the early age of forty-five.

Laennec was noted for his kindness and was beloved by his colleagues and his students. He showed himself especially obliging towards his English-speaking pupils. As might be expected from his Breton birth and training, he was intensely religious and was a devout Catholic all his life. A characteristic story illustrates this: On his way to Paris with his wife he was thrown from his carriage. When the vehicle was righted and they had once more been seated he said to her: "Well, we were at the third decade"; then they went on with the rosary they had been reciting just before the accident. His charity to the poor became proverbial and his principal solicitude towards the end of his life was to keep as far as possible from giving trouble to others. Dr. Austin Flint in his lecture on Laennec said: "Laennec's life affords a striking instance among others disproving the vulgar error that the pursuit of science is unfavourable to religious faith." He was one of the greatest clinical students of medicine of the nineteenth century. His principal work is "De l'auscultation médiate", Paris, 1819.

SAINTIGNON, Laennec, Sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris, 1904); RICHARDSON, Disciples of Æsculapius (London, 1898); ROGER, Les Médicins Bretons (Paris, 1900); WALSH, Makers of Modern Medicine (New York, 1907).

JAMES J. WALSH