The Invention of the Stehoscope

I’m pleased to host historical author Ruth Axtell Morren as she posts about some of the medical research she did for her novel The Healing Season. You can find out more about Ruth by checking out her website.

the-healing-seasonThe stethoscope was invented by a French doctor, Laennec, in 1816. He discovered that you could hear sounds better from a certain distance, if there was something in between.

Back in those days, modesty many times prevented a (male) doctor from hearing a female patient’s heartbeat, because the only way you could hear it, was putting your ear up to the person’s chest.

Laennec rolled up some paper and put it against the patient’s chest and his ear to the other end, and voilà, the heartbeat sounded even clearer than if he had had his ear pressed against her.

I did a lot of research on medicine in the early nineteenth century for my regency novel, The Healing Season. 

I traveled to London and toured a museum that used to be an apothecary’s shop. It was part of the St. Guy’s/St. Thomas’s Hospital complex of that time. It was fascinating to see all the things used at that a time, especially the herbs and how pills were made.

Another interesting thing I found about that period was that at that time three kinds of medical practitioners existed: the physician, the apothecary and the surgeon.

The physician was the “profession,” only practiced by the aristocratic, university educated man. The apothecary was our pharmacist, but he learned through apprenticeship. Then there was the lowly surgeon, who evolved from the butcher, and he was strictly called in for cuts, broken bones or amputations and the few surgeries performed in those days (kidney stones being one). The physician hardly touched the patient, just prescribed tonics and dealt with “humors.” Medicine was more theoretical for this guy. The medicines he prescribed were made up by the apothecary.

What began happening, though, was that generally there weren’t that many physicians, especially away from the large cities, so apothecaries began taking over more and more of his duties. Surgeons, who also worked aboard navy ships and accompanied armies, began to perfect their technique on the battlefield (primitive triage). So, the professional lines began to blur, and the apothecary began to change into what would become the General Practitioner.

My story is about a surgeon. I also included his uncle and made him an apothecary. Some of the resources I used were Irvine Loudon’s Medical Care and the General Practitioner 1750-1850; Sherwin B. Nuland’s Doctors: The Biography of Medicine (excellent resource!); And Roy Porter’s Quacks, Fakers & Charlatans in Medicine.

This is a repost of a blog piece from November 19, 2010.

2 thoughts on “The Invention of the Stehoscope

  1. Ruth, I’ve seen that museum, as well as Guy’s Hospital in London. Quite interesting. It’s also of interest that early surgeons treated kidney stones, and the Hippocratic Oath (now supplanted by the Doctor’s Oath which I took on graduation) includes the phrase, “I will not cut for the stone.” Thanks for sharing.

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