February 17, 2013 - Happy Birthday, Rene Laennec!

It's sad when someone is very sick, especially if that someone is soon going to die.

But it's a little less sad if that person can somehow add to people's knowledge about illness, and thereby prevent future illness or death. Then that person becomes a sort of hero.

Rene Laennec, who was born in France on this date in 1781, helped a lot of people become that sort of hero. He studied diseases of the chest (that is, diseases of the heart and lungs) and listened carefully to the sounds heard in the chests of both well and sick people. If a patient died, he could often use an autopsy to determine what had gone wrong with that person's systems. Then he could go back to his careful notes about the sounds he had heard in the patient's chest, and he could teach doctors what to listen for in future patients.

Apparently during Laennec's time, a doctor listened to people's chest sounds by pressing his ear to their chests. However, one time while treating a “queen size” woman, Laennec couldn't hear her heart well. He rolled up a piece of paper into a funnel-shaped tube, and he put the narrower end of the tube up to his ear and the wider end on the woman's chest. He could hear her heart, loud and clear!

Later, Laennec created a wooden version of the listening tube, and he called it a stethoscope. Of course, using this wooden funnel he was only using one ear to hear sounds.

Today's stethoscopes have flexible hollow tubes that make them much easier to use, and the sounds are carried to both ears through these tubes. Also, modern stethoscopes' "funnels" have two sides—a diaphragm side and a bell side—which transmit different frequencies of sound.

It is ironic that Laennec, often called the father of chest medicine, died from tuberculosis, a “chest disease” or more precisely a bacterial infection of the lungs. His nephew is said to have diagnosed his disease using one of his stethoscopes.

Make your own stethoscope...

Of course you can try what Laennec first did, and roll up a piece of paper to carry sounds to one ear. Note: place the larger end of the roll onto the chest and the smaller end up to your ear. Can you hear a heartbeat?

For a much fancier version of a stethoscope, check out Science Buddies or Science With Me

Also on this date:

Basketball superstar Michael Jordan's birthday

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