Chartran, Theobold (French 1849-1907)

Laennec Listening with his Ear Against the Chest of a Patient at the Necker Hospital

Reference Type:
late 19th century
In medical school in Paris, Rene-Theophile-Hyacinthe Laennec (1781-1826) was known for his studies of peritonitis, lack of menstrual periods, the prostate, and tubercle lesions. After his graduation in 1804, he became a faculty member of the Society of the School of Medicine. In 1812-1813 he was in charge of wards at the Salpetriere Hospital, reserved for soldiers wounded in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1816, Laennec was appointed as physician in the Necker Hospital, where he invented the stethoscope. Part of the inspiration came from the awkwardness of placing an ear against the chests of women, especially particularly large ones. His first model, which could easily be taken apart and put back together, was a hollow tube of wood 1.4 inches in diameter and 10 inches long that transmitted sound to one ear. A special plug helped transmit sounds from the patient’s heart and lungs. In 1819 he published a treatise on the sounds heard through the stethoscope, which was translated into English in 1821 and aroused great interest throughout Europe. Physicians came from all over to learn about the new diagnostic tool, and he lectured internationally. Tragically, at the age of 45, Laennec used his new invention to diagnose tuberculosis in himself. Here, Laennec is shown holding an early stethoscope. This was controversial at first because a physician’s use of an instrument blurred the status boundaries between physicians and surgeons—physicians used their minds, surgeons their hands. The use of technology in daily medical practice also began the discussion about the distance between doctor and patient that it created. This discussion continues today over such issues as the value and reliability of the physical examination compared to imaging and other studies. Theobold Chartran was a favored portraitist among wealthy classes in both Europe and the United States—his subjects included Andrew Carnegie, engineer Washington Roebling, who worked on the Brooklyn Bridge, and French President Sadi Carnot. Thus Laennec was in excellent company, reflecting the prestige doctors enjoyed in the 19th century. Notes by Dr. Linda Pessar and Mariann Smith. NLM Copyright Information for image at
Art of Medicine
History of Medicine
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