In 1816, the French physician René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec invented a simple tubular device to listen to the sound of a patient’s heart. He first wanted to call it “Le Cylindre.” He eventually named it “the stethoscope” and coined the term “mediate auscultation” to describe listening to the internal sounds of the body through an instrument. In 1824, an article in the London Times described it as “a wonderful instrument” whose use has spread from hospitals in France. While some physicians still felt that applying the ear directly to the patient’s chest was the most reliable method of auscultation, the stethoscope became a success in the medical establishment.
After Laennec, a variety of stethoscope designs proliferated throughout the 19th century. Most of these examples were monaural, with a single earpiece. One model that became popular in the late 19th century was a convertible monaural style. This two-piece design consisted of an earpiece and a stem made of wood, ivory or metal. The stethoscope could be assembled in a trumpet shape for auscultation, then reassembled for storage (as shown). The idea of a stethoscope with two earpieces was first advanced in 1829; however, it wasn’t until the 1850s that the binaural stethoscope caught on, with the development of designs that are the forerunners of today’s modern stethoscope.
OHSU’s Historical Collections & Archives holds many examples of 19th-20th century stethoscopes in its Medical Museum. Most of these stethoscopes were donated to the library by alumni and faculty of the university. One example of was donated by Edwin E. Osgood, the eminent hematologist and researcher in experimental medicine who served on the faculty of the University of Oregon Medical School from 1928-1969. The example shown in the photograph was donated in 2011 by Dr. Ugo Carpentieri, a retired pediatrician and hematologist-oncologist. Dr. Carpentieri built a diverse collection of medical artifacts during his career in Italy and the United States.
Pictured: Monaural stethoscope, late 19th century
Contributed by Maija Anderson, archivist, OHSU Historical Collections & Archives