Object lesson No. 19

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Take a deep breath. Hold it. Good. I'm going to place this long wooden cylinder on your chest and listen to your heart.

Who am I? Why, I'm Dr Rene-Theophile-Hyacinthe La nnec, of course, and I've gone down in history as the father of chest medicine.

Frankly, I feel I deserve the recognition. I spent three years in Paris listening to the gurgles and murmurs of sick chests. Back in 1816 you heard some pretty peculiar noises - too many wheezing revolutionaries and broken soldiers around.

And that was only half my job. Being a very thorough chap, I also worked at the morgue, cutting up bodies and deciding which diseases went with which sounds. Consumption, pneumonia - you name it, I've heard it.

Of course, all this wouldn't have been possible without my cylindre. I don't know who labelled it a stethoscope. Probably someone showing off that they knew stethos was Greek for chest.

I called it a cylindre because that's what it was: a perforated wooden tube. You could only use one ear - monaural is the technical term.

Now, they've all got those two-eared or binaural devices and, what's more, doctors can listen ut for a range of sounds. The bell-shaped open-ended side is better for low notes and the flatter, covered side for high-pitched sounds.

But you don't need me to tell you about the strange noises hearts and lungs can make. They're all written down in my book De l'auscultation mediate, which is now hailed as a classic. It took a while to get noticed, but I was made professor at the Coll ge de France in 1822, the year after Napoleon died. Of course I didn't know then that I only had four years left myself. I mean, I was only 41.

What's auscultation? It's what we're doing now: making a diagnosis by listening to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Much better than that idea dreamed up by that Viennese chap, Leopold Auenbrugger. You know he was the son of an innkeeper, don't you? Used to bang his father's casks to work out how much was in them. That's how he came up with the idea of tapping someone's chest with his fingers to find out what was wrong. Percussion method they call it. I say it should have been drummed out of him early on. Get it?

What's wrong? Oh, yes, breathe out now.

Stephanie Northen

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