Now found in the newly opened Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum in South Kensington, this stethoscope was made by the French physician René Laennec in about 1820.

Several years earlier, Laennec, working in a hospital in Paris, wanted to listen to a young woman’s heart beat but, for the sake of propriety he didn’t want to put his ear to her chest as was common practice. In sudden inspiration, he used a rolled up piece of paper with one end placed over her heart and his ear on the other open end.

It proved a good way to amplify sound and Laennec was so impressed he followed up by making brass and wooden versions like the one at the Science Museum., drawing on the skills he used, no doubt, he had previously used in making flutes.

Laennec called his invention the “stethoscope” (from the Greek word for chest, “stethos”). His invention was succeeded in the following decades by the creation of the modern binaural stethoscope with its two earpieces and dial for listening.

The Science Museum stethoscope is labelled. It reads: “This is one of Laennec’s original stethoscopes, and it was presented by him to Dr Bégin a French Army surgeon whose widow gave it to me in 1863.”

WHERE: Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington (nearest Tube is South Kensington); WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.sciencemuseum.org.uk.

PICTURE: Laennec stethoscope made by Laennec, c1820. Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum