René Théophile Laënnec: Biography And Contributions To Science

René Théophile Laënnec was a French doctor who lived in the 18th century and who went down in the history of medicine for having created an indispensable tool, both for the time in which he lived, and for modern medicine: the stethoscope.

In addition to this fundamental instrument for diagnosis, he also made another series of contributions to medicine. All this, thanks to the studies that he began at a very young age, as well as the numerous practices and investigations that he carried out.

Laënnec’s family and childhood

René Théophile Laënnec was born on February 17, 1781, in Quimper, a town located in French Brittany. Son of the lawyer, writer and poet Théophile Marie Laënnec, who held an important position in the Ministry of the Navy.

She was only six years old when her mother, Michelle Gabrielle Felicité Guesdón, died of tuberculosis in the middle of a childbirth that also skewed the life of the child being born. René and his brother Michaud Bonaventure took care of their troubled father and in no mood to take care of his children.

René and his brother Michaud went to live with their uncle Michel-Jean Laennec, who exercised the priesthood in the Saint-Gilles church in Elliant. It was at Uncle Michel-Jean’s house that René incorporated into his life the faith and deep Christian conviction that would characterize him.

Influence of Uncle Guillaume

At the age of seven, René was moved again, now to the city of Nantes, to the house of another uncle, totally different from Uncle Michel-Jean. It was about Uncle Guillaume Francois Laënnec.

As a child, René Laënnec was always curious; he explored and carefully checked his surroundings. That curiosity did not escape the attention of this other uncle, an active republican, detached and opposed to the clerical line.

Uncle Guillaume was characterized by his express humanism and by being an excellent practical physician. Furthermore, he was the Rector of the University of Nantes and professor of medicine until 1789. It was, in fact, Uncle Guillaume who guided René Theóphile Laënnec to direct his vocation towards medical science.

Without a doubt, Guillaume Laënnec had a strong influence on the vocational inclination of his insightful nephew, and guided him to enter the universe of medical sciences.

The house where they lived for five years with Uncle Guillaume was in front of the “ place du Bouffay ”, an important fact that would later redound in the impressions that would determine part of the boy’s personality. 

Studies

In 1789 the French Revolution broke out . By then, René was studying at the “ Institut Tardivel ”. In 1791, at the age of ten, he enrolled in the ” Collège de l’Oratoire ” where he learned subjects so vital to his training such as grammar, German and Latin, political science, religion, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, English and biology.

From the window of the house you could see the ” place du Bouffay “, the place where the executions that bloodied the French Revolution were carried out. It was a daunting panorama. Young René came to witness more than fifty guillotines. This made Uncle Guillaume decide to move in 1793.

René did not stop his training and was able to continue his academic studies at the “ Institut National ”. His advances led him in 1795, when he was 14 years old, to enter the “ L’Hotel Dieu ” School of Medicine in Nantes.

It was an enclosure that had a capacity to serve four hundred beds, of which one hundred were under the responsibility of Uncle Guillaume. In that space, René attended and helped care for the disabled, wounded and sick as a result of the Revolution.

He was 17 years old when an acute fever struck him down and a possible picture of tuberculosis infection was considered, a diagnosis that René ruled out and came to assume typhoid fever.

Overcome that event. At the age of 18, he was appointed a third-class surgeon at the “ Hôpital Militaire ” in Nantes.

Medicine studies

When René finished his preparatory and practical training in Nantes, he made the decision to go to Paris to study medicine. In that decision he had the full support of his uncle Guillaume.

At the age of 19 (1800), he began his medical career, receiving a scholarship as ” Elève de la Patrie ” by the ” École Spéciale de Santé ” to the University of Paris, where he received his doctorate in 1807.

His remarkable academic performance and the gifts of brilliance that he displayed in class attracted the attention of what would later become Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal physician, Doctor Jean Nicolás Covisart, who immediately sheltered him with his tutelage.

René Laennec had a careful training in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, botany, pharmacy, legal medicine, and the history of medicine. In addition, he received an invitation to participate in the “ Societé d’Instruction Médicale ”.

First works and awards

His early research work earned him relevance among the doctors of his generation. Addressed topics such as peritonitis, venereal diseases, mitral stenosis

In 1803 he was recognized with the Prize for Medicine and then the Prize for Surgery. A year later, 1804, with his thesis ” Propositions sur la doctrine d’Hippocrate relativement à la medicine pratique “, he obtained the academic degree of Doctor.

At the age of 35, he became the head of the Necker Hospital in Paris. René was already dedicating his efforts mainly to medical auscultation and, thanks to his uncle Guillaume, became interested in percussion as a method of auscultation. 

Invention of the stethoscope

On one occasion, the young René Laënnec found himself in the middle of a delicate situation. An obese young woman came to his office with what appeared to be a chest condition. Apparently abnormal palpitations disturbed her.

Due to the accumulation of fat under the skin, auscultation by the percussion method could not be required. But to that was added that because she was a lady – and since she was also young – it was unseemly to bring her ear close to the patient’s chest in direct contact.

It was a time marked by Puritanism and this demanded high standards of modesty between doctors and patients.

It was then that he remembered something he had seen on the street. In the courtyard of the Louvre, boys played with a hollow log using the ends to produce sounds.

They hit one end with blows and at the other end they guessed how many blows there were. That made Laënnec come up with something. He listened to the young patient by rolling up some sheets of paper in the shape of a cylinder and using both ends to listen to the girl’s chest.

It took him by surprise that he could hear not only the beating of the heart, but also that he could perceive the sounds of the chest much more amplified than when pressing the ear against the bare skin. Thus, out of modesty and the need to serve people more efficiently, the stethoscope or stethoscope was born.

He immediately had the device manufactured. It was a tube thirty centimeters long and four centimeters in diameter, traversed by a five-millimeter channel, terminated in a funnel-shaped, conical, at one end.

Spreading the invention

In 1819, at the age of 38, he published in two volumes his work “De l’auscultation mediate ou traité de diagnostic des maladies des poumons et du coeur fondé principally sur ce nouveau moyen d’exploration”, later known as “Traité d’auscultation mediate ”  or“ Treatise on mediate auscultation ”.

In that book he explained the structure and applicative functionality of his device, the stethoscope, and described the sounds he heard when using it for auscultation.

For this he used terms that at that time were an invention of Laënnec: pectoriloquy, egophony, crackling, rattle. In addition, the detection of heart and lung pathologies was added to the field of medicine.

Among them the bronchiectatic lesions; emphysema, edema, heart attack, and pulmonary gangrene; Lobar pneumonia, pneumothorax, pleurisy, pulmonary tuberculosis and collateral damage that affected other organs due to tuberculosis, such as the meninges.

René Laënnec was a promoter of the importance of observation in medical practice. His main effort was to show doctors the way to our inner world, through listening.

Death

René Theóphile Laënnec, died in Paris on August 13, 1826. A vertebra from a corpse infected with tuberculosis had torn his finger, infecting him with the same disease that had killed his mother and brother.

It was a Sunday and he was assisted during his last hours by his cousin Meriadec Laënnec, son of his uncle Guillaume. He was 45 years old.

There are numerous monuments, buildings, institutions, streets, avenues, university chairs, and other elements throughout the world, which commemorate and honor the French doctor.

These include many museums, hospitals, movies, documentaries. All honoring the father of the stethoscope and promoter of pulmonology.

Contributions to science

René Laënnec is considered the father of the instrument that most characterizes doctors around the world, the stethoscope.

In addition, his contributions to the field of pulmonology gave a boost to this determining scientific branch . In 1819, he explained in detail the sounds of the thorax in his publication “Treatise on mediate auscultation”, laying the foundations of current pulmonology.

The delimitation of semiological pictures for heart diseases and lung diseases is another contribution of the French genius. As well as his organized description of anatomical-pathological lesions.

References

  1. Roguin, A. (2006) Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781–1826): The Man Behind the Stethoscope. In: Clinical Medicine & Research. v. 4, no. 3
  2. Rueda G. (1991) Notes on the history of tuberculosis. Rev Col Neumol; 3: 15-192.
  3. Scherer, JR (2007). Before cardiac MRI: Rene Laennec (1781–1826) and the invention of the stethoscope. Cardiology Journal 14 (5): 518-519
  4. Corbie, A. de. (1950) La vie ardente de Laennec, Ed. SP ES, Paris, 191 p.
  5. Kervran, R. Laennec (1955), médecin breton, Hachette, Paris, 268 p.

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