Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/February 1883/Evolution of the Stethoscope
By SAMUEL WILKS, M. D., F. R. S.,
PHYSICIAN AND LECTURER ON MEDICINE, GUY'S HOSPITAL.
INSTEAD of placing on the table every imaginary form of stethoscope manufactured out of every possible material gathered from the shops of the instrument-makers, I will carry you back to the origin of the stethoscope, and you will see how, on the principle of selection and the survival of the fittest, the primitive instruments have departed from the scene and are now only to be found among the fossilized curiosities, the relics of former ages, on the antiquated shelves of some very old medical practitioner. The stethoscope, as you know, was invented by Laennec. He relates how in the year 1816 he happened to recollect a well-known fact in acoustics of solid bodies conveying sound, and he goes on to say: "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 than by the application of the ear. . . . The first instrument which I used was a cylinder of paper formed of three quires completely rolled together and kept in shape by paste." Laennec then goes on to describe how he copied this roll of paper in wood, metals, glass, and other substances, and finally he says: "In consequence of these various experiments I now employ a cylinder of wood an inch and a half in diameter and a foot long, perforated longitudinally by a bore three lines wide and hollowed out into a funnel-shape to the depth of an inch and a half at one of its extremities. It is divided into two portions, partly for the convenience of carriage and partly to permit its being used of half the usual length. The instrument in this form—that is, with the funnel-shaped extremity—is used in exploring the respiration and rattle; when applied to the exploration of the heart and the voice, it is converted into a simple tube with thick sides, by inserting into its excavated extremity a stopper or plug traversed by a small aperture and accurately adjusted to the excavation. This instrument I have denominated the stethoscope."
Fig. 1 represents Laennec's roll of paper, and Figs. 2 and 3 the copy of this in wood as he describes. The latter figure is drawn from an instrument kindly given me by Dr. Galton, of Norwood, being the stethoscope long used by his father. It does not separate into two
pieces, but contains the plug which can be removed so as to leave the end hollow. Fig. 4 is the same instrument with the sides cut out to make it lighter and more elegant, the ear-piece being the same as before, and the mouth also hollowed out. This was the stethoscope used and recommended by the late Dr. Hughes. By making the instrument still more elegant and slender we have the modern stethoscope in endless variety, as in Fig. 5. It is thus very evident how the modern instrument has been framed out of the original block of wood which was made the counterpart of Laennec's roll of paper.
I know not who invented the instruments with flexible tubes, but I have no doubt that a search into medical history could tell us. I remember, however, that the first flexible stethoscope which I ever saw was the one depicted in Fig. 6, and used by Dr. Golding Bird when he saw out-patients in the year 1843. Being much crippled with rheumatism, and therefore not wishing to rise from his chair, he found
this instrument very convenient; he also was enabled to pass the earpiece to gentlemen standing near him, while he held the cup on the part to be examined. I always thought it was his own invention. But, whether so or not, I do not think any great effort of genius was required to frame a flexible instrument, and then adapt it for the use of one or two ears. This being done, the next step would be to make two mouth-pieces to apply to the chest at different spots. Various modifications of these instruments have been made of late years, but the first notice of them I have any knowledge of in my reading is to be found in a letter to the "Lancet" of August 29, 1829, by Mr. Comins, of Edinburgh, headed "A Flexible Stethoscope." This was only twelve years after Laennec's invention. It is difficult from his description to picture the instrument, but it seems to have been composed of jointed tubes, and made for two ears as well as one. Mr. Comins expresses his surprise that the discoverer of mediate auscultation did not suggest a flexible instrument, as he says "it can be used in the highest ranks of society without offending fastidious delicacy." A very interesting fact was first pointed out to me by Dr. Andrew Clark, with respect to a peculiarity of the binaural in the objective appreciation of sounds; that if each ear-piece be separately used, and any sound be made near the mouth-piece, it is heard in the ear itself, but, if the two pieces are employed together, the sound is heard at the spot where it is produced. The fact is very interesting in a physiological point of view, and further corroborates the theory as to the value of a double set of senses, or, in a word, of the body being made up of two halves, for just as the two hands feeling different parts of an object gain an idea of extension, and the two eyes by obtaining different views of any substance get a knowledge of its solidity, so in the same way the two ears listening to the same sound more thoroughly appreciate its objectivity.
If you look at this series of drawings you may perceive but little resemblance between the first figure and the last, but take them one by one and you will see that the figures are really progressive. My story of development is not imaginary, but historical.—Lancet.