The stethoscope is the most recognisable of all pieces of medical equipment, and is identifiable by even the smallest children as being representative of a doctor. Its inventor René Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (17 February 1781 – 13 August 1826) was born in 1781 in France and studied medicine under his physician uncle in Nantes until he was called to serve as a medical cadet in the French Revolution. He was revered as an excellent student after he resumed his studies in Paris in 1801 and began working in the Necker Hospital once the French monarchy had been reestablished in 1815.
Late in 1816, while examining a patient suffering complications of the heart, René Laennec’s memory of a stroll taken months prior came rushing back. Walking the courtyard of the Louvre that day, he observed two children playing with a long stick–one scraped it with a pin while the other listened giddily to the amplified sound on the other end.
Recalling this, Laennec rolled up a piece of paper and pressed it to his patient’s chest. The beating of her heart was suddenly audible and clear, and the stethoscope–an innovation that would fundamentally change the detection and diagnosis of lung and heart problems–was born.
After several prototypes, he settled on an instrument that resembled a long, wooden tube. Using his invention, Laennec continued his research on sound in diagnostic medicine.
It is said that Laennec ‘was intensely religious and was a devout Catholic all his life.’ He was noted as a very kind man and his charity to the poor became proverbial. Austin Flint, the 1884 president of the American Medical Association, said that ‘Laennec’s life affords a striking instance among others disproving the vulgar error that the pursuit of science is unfavourable to religious faith.’
In Sir John Forbes’ translation of a French biography, it was written:
“Laennec was a man of the greatest probity, habitually observant of his religious and social duties. He was a sincere Christian, and a good Catholic, adhering to his religion and his church through good report and bad report. ‘His death’ (says M. Bayle) ‘was that of a Christian. Supported by the hope of a better life, prepared by the constant practice of virtue, he saw his end approach with composure and resignation. His religious principles, imbibed with his earliest knowledge, were strengthened by the conviction of his more mature reason. He took no pains to conceal them when they were disadvantageous to his worldly interests; and he made no boast of them, when their avowal might have been a title to favour and advancement.’” — A treatise on the diseases of the chest and on mediate auscultation (1819), Translation John Forbes (1835).