History of the development of science

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of PRHS


The stethoscope is one of the most recognised symbols of the medical profession. Invented just 200 years ago by Laennec, it cemented the final stages of a centuries-long trend towards the anatomical approach to diagnosing and treating disease. This approach is still predominant in the West today. How and when did this simple yet extraordinary instrument come to Britain? How was it received? What were the circumstances which allowed it to become the dominant symbol of the medical profession? By undertaking this PhD I aim to answer these questions and sketch a picture of those factors which allowed the stethoscope to become the powerful symbol of medicine it is today. In doing so I will also be integrating the history of medicine with the history of technology, which will impact how we understand and react to current and future development of medical equipment.


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Description 1. I have used primary sources to radically alter the narrative of stethoscope adoption in Britain. Previously, the historical narrative included a dichotomy between Edinburgh and London (both large centres of medical learning), with the stethoscope being accepted in Edinburgh with little conflict while medical practitioners in London rejected the instrument. My research suggests that this dichotomy is false, completely changing our understanding of the early history of the stethoscope in Britain.
2. One of the key differences in my account is the discovery of the importance of surgical training for early adopters of the stethoscope, I am in the process of linking this surgical training to the skills necessary for stethoscope use.
3. As an separate but related point, I am using the surgical aspect in the history of the stethoscope to develop a theory of object use and tool making in relation to tacit ('embodied') knowledge. This will hopefully expand how historians can understand and approach the history of objects and instruments as well as furthering philosophical ideas about how knowledge is acquired and used.
Exploitation Route The approach to surgical training could be taken forward in a variety of other researchers looking a the histories of medical advancements or medical tools. The approach to tacit knowledge could be taken forward by researchers from any area looking at object use and skill development.
Sectors Education,Healthcare,Other

Description My findings have been used in several public lectures and have had an impact on the gallery display of the stethoscope in the new exhibit (opening Summer 2019) at the London Science Museum.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Healthcare,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description London Science Museum 
Organisation Science Museum Group
Department The Science Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I have sorted through their stethoscope collection and gathered more accurate data for their records. My research was also used to aid the creation of a display on the stethoscope that will be opening in the new medical gallery (2019).
Collaborator Contribution The partnership allowed me access to the objects which play a fundamental part in my research. They also provided training for working within the museum and access to a range of experts.
Impact Access to the objects has resulted in at least one chapter in my thesis. There are plans for future outputs such as updating the museum's information on the stethoscopes to be more accurate and the production of a blog post.
Start Year 2016
Description Public Lecture (History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This talk was part of a series of talks given in the History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects lecture series. It was open to the public and to other students/staff at the university. The aim of the series was to introduce a range of audiences to the use of objects in history and philosophy, and to emphasise the importance of objects for both historical and philosophical studies. Around 80-100 people attended the talk, which lasted around 45 minutes with time at the end for questions. This led to further discussions afterwards as people were interested in the topic.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://museumofhstm.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/hps-in-20-objects-lecture-12-laennec-stethoscope-or-is...
Description Public Open Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The university hosted an open event for members of the public to come and look at different stalls relating to history, science and medicine during the school half term. Many of the visitors were parents with primary school aged children. Our stall had interactive activities relating to historical diagnosis of disease. The children seemed to be very interested in the activities and many participants reported an increase in understanding of historical medical ideas in feedback given after this event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Teaching Medical Students 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Several lectures given to second and third year medical students on the history of medicine. One lecture was a simple overview of the general history of medicine, one was a more specific look at my area of research (the stethoscope) and the final hour was used to look at historical medical objects such as a used amputation kit from the 1830s. These lectures encouraged medical students to think about the history of their discipline. After each set, I have been invited back to give the same series next year and students reported high engagement and interest with the topics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018
Description Visiting Gynaecological Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Myself and my supervisor were invited to give a talk on the early history of the stethoscope in pregnancy to the Gynaecological Visiting Society. Around 60-80 retired or practising gynaecologists attended our talk, which was part of a wider annual conference that brings the members of the Society together from across Britain. There were lots of discussions around my research, including changing/improving some member's understanding of the history.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017