René Laennec: Inventor of the stethoscope

It’s the symbol of the entire medical profession. The stethoscope. It came about because a doctor was feeling shy.

Dr. René Laennec had a female patient in 1816 who was fat and facing some heart problems. Her obesity made it difficult for him to place his hands on her heart and feel her heartbeat properly. And he was just too shy to lean in and place his ears on her chest directly.

In that moment, he recalled seeing kids play by placing one end of a long hollow stick to their ear – and how it amplified the noise that scratching of pins made on the other side of the stick. Inspired by that memory, Laennec instantly rolled a long piece of paper into a cylinder to listen to his patient’s heartbeat. And he was surprised to hear the percussion of the heart with much more clarity than he ever had before. 

Laennec perfected this idea and created a cylindrical wooden tool and called it the stethoscope. He combined the two Greek words: “stethos” that meant chest and “skopein” that meant to explore. And over the next few years, he correlated the sounds he heard through his stethoscope with actual diseases. And gave the world a beautiful non-invasive diagnostic tool! It was now easy for doctors to diagnose if their patients suffered from tuberculosis or pulmonary phthisis or some other heart or lung disease! 

But Laennec didn’t come up with the theory of listening to peoples heartbeats on his own. He stood on the shoulders of a few forgotten giants.

The birth of percussion of the heart

55 years before Laennec created the stethoscope, Dr Leopold Auenbrugger started writing a 49 page book on his idea: how you could listen to the heartbeat and understand if the patient had any problems. 

Auenbrugger was a physician who also played music. But it wasn’t music that inspired him to create heart percussion as a diagnostic tool. It was his father who was an innkeeper. He had often seen his father tap on the side of wine barrels to determine its contents. Getting inspired by that, Auenbrugger started tapping lightly on his patients chests – to try and determine the density of their tissue and organs. Depending on whether the sound was higher or lower, clear or stifled – he could diagnose the patient’s heart and lung ailments.

But Auenbrugger’s ideas were panned by other doctors. Because no one could consistently do what he could do. Listening to the heart seemed like art. And for 50 years, the idea went nowhere. Very few doctors tried listening to peoples heart.

Until Napoleon Bonaparte’s primary physician Jean Corvisart came across his work. Corvisart took Auenbrugger’s 49 page booklet and translated it into a 400 page book – and taught it to his students!

One of his students was the young Laennec. 

So why did the practice of percussion remain unpopular for 50+ years? Because it was an inconsistent field that left the doctors feeling more doubt. A process can’t become widespread if it confuses people. 

Only when Laennec managed to amplify the sound with his stethoscope did other doctors get a better grip in listening and understanding what was going on inside the human body! Laennec’s own treatise on the diagnosis for the lung and the heart became extremely popular – and was translated and used by doctors all over Europe!

The tools matter

If you ever find that a great idea is not gaining widespread recognition, now you know why. Usability follows clarity. 

If things are not clear, they will only add to confusion. Lack of clarity leads to reduced engagement. 

How can you make things clearer? By adopting the right tools. Tools that help you:

  1. Amplify the sound.
  2. And then organize the output. Discard the noise and pay attention to the signal.

Action Summary:

  • Breakthrough ideas can come from anywhere. Be curious and keep an open mind. 
  • Create clarity. Only then will your ideas spread. Amplify and simplify to create clarity.