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Rene Laennec, Founder of Modern Pulmonology

Which doctor do you consult when you are dying of a disease in which you are the world’s leading expert on the treatment of that disease?

René-Thééophile-Hyacinthe Laennec was born in France in 1781 and died at age 45. He was a famous French physician who invented the stethoscope and was the father of our modern knowledge of lung diseases. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five. At twelve he went to live with an uncle, Guillaime-François Laennec, who taught medicine at the university in Nantes. At age 18, he started medical school in Paris and worked with Dupuytren and Corvisart-Desmarets, two physicians who are still famous today.   At nineteen he became a pupil of Corvisart, Napoleon's great physician who specialized in lung diseases, and he did the same. He laid the groundwork for the modern diagnosis of lung diseases while treating thousands of patients who were dying of tuberculosis in the Necker Hospital of Paris. After a close associate died of tuberculosis, his widow, Jacqueline Guichard Argou, became Laennec's housekeeper and helped him care for the sick and dying. Then he married her.

A Shy Patient Led Him to Invent the Stethoscope
In 1816, while working at the Hôpital Necker, a young lady patient was so shy that she would not let him listen to her lungs and heart by the conventional method of putting his head on her chest. He remembered playing games in childhood in which he held his ear to one end of the stick while other children scratched the other end with a pin. The stick transmitted the scratching sound to his ear. He was also an accomplished flutist who had made his own flute, a hollow wood cylinder. He used these experiences to create a hollow tube that he used to examine the shy girl, placing one end on her chest and the other at his ear. He refined his discovery into a stethoscope that he used to listen to his patients’ lungs and hearts. If one of his patients died, he autopsied the body to help him interpret what he had heard through his stethoscope when the person was alive.

Prophets Often Start Out as Quacks
The stethoscope helped Laennec to distinguish fatal disease from minor illnesses and to predict the need for operations. The New England Journal of Medicine reported Laennec's invention of the stethoscope two years later, in 1821.

New discoveries in medicine are often treated with ridicule by physicians. Many doctors find it difficult to unlearn wrong information that they were taught in medical school and because of this, they impede progress with their skeptical attitudes. Poor Dr. Renee Laennec, the man who built the foundation for diagnosing chest disease, was treated like a quack by the physicians of Paris. Many physicians were jealous of him and ridiculed his invention.  Even forty-five years after Laennec’s great invention, the founder of the American Heart Association, L. A. Connor, was pictured carrying a silk handkerchief that he used to separate his ear from a patient’s chest when he listened to a patient’s heart and lungs.

Other Great Contributions
Laennec described and explained peritonitis and cirrhosis. He was the first to call mole skin cancers “melanoma” and was the first to demonstrate that melanoma can spread to the lungs. He described the appearance of the lungs of people who had died of tuberculosis.

In 1826, Laennec's nephew used his stethoscope to diagnose his uncle’s tuberculosis. Renee Laennec died of that disease at the young age of 45. At that time, he was the leading expert in the world on diagnosing tuberculosis.

November 17th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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