Tuning In with the Stethoscope in the Nineteenth Century
When, in 1816, René Laennec sought to overcome his difficulties in examining an obese girl with symptoms of heart disease by rolling an exercise book into a cylinder, placing one end at his ear and the other at her precordial region, he discovered that he could hear the sounds of her chest more clearly than if he had applied his ear directly to her body. Three years later, he published a 900 hundred page treatise on the art of mediate auscultation, filled with descriptions of the various sounds he had detected through use of the stethoscope and the diseases they signified. In its gradual adoption by medical practitioners across Europe and America, the stethoscope, a powerful symbol of modern medical practice, marked, as Jonathan Sterne has observed, an important shift in the Western history of listening, whereby the voice of the patient was no longer the basis of diagnosis but existed in relation to other sounds made by and within the patient’s body.
This paper will argue that, in Britain, although the stethoscope provided new medical insights into the workings of the body, it was a source not only of practical, social, and professional challenges, but also deep confusion, mistrust, and corporeal anxiety. Music, language, and literature played an active role these early, experimental stages of clinical diagnosis by providing rich conceptual frameworks for the exploration and interpretation of a new auditory realm, while proffering both scientific and imaginative explorations of its potential physical, and at times, metaphysical significance.