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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 18, 19, April 29 & May 6, 2023 (Double issue)

Review: Brian Elliott on Stethoscope by Anna Harris, Tom Rice

Saturday 29 April 2023


Reviewed by Brian Elliott (Wright Patterson Medical Center and Wright State University)


The Making of a Medical Icon.

by Anna Harris, Tom Rice

Reaktion Books
2022. 191 pp.
(cloth), ISBN 978-1-78914-633-2

The stethoscope is perhaps the most recognizable icon in medicine. Its early nineteenth-century invention by René Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec is well described by historians and articulated in Laënnec’s De l’auscultation médiate ou traité du diagnostic des maladies des poumon et du coeur (1819).[1] In Stethoscope: The Making of a Medical Icon, authors Anna Harris and Tom Rice approach this ubiquitous icon from a fresh perspective: the anthropological viewpoint. Harris and Rice utilize their own fieldwork, previous anthropological analyses, and creative works such as poems, paintings, and more to describe the cultural impact of the stethoscope throughout history. They aim to explain the persistent use of the stethoscope and comment on future directions of its use.

Chapter 1 recounts the origins of the stethoscope from Laënnec’s initial invention to his early development and modifications of the idea. The chapter’s historical depiction is not much different from mainstream accounts, nor does it claim to be, and lays an important historical foundation for the book. However, the authors’ account of the discovery’s implications at the end of the chapter is insightful, describing the symbolic changes in doctor-patient interactions and transition of power as clinicians were enabled to detect subclinical diseases (diseases that do not cause symptoms yet). The implications make the reader think twice about contemporary standards of medical interactions. Chapter 2 describes the uptake and modification of the stethoscope across Europe, the United States, and Bengal, followed by chapter 3 describing unconventional applications of the stethoscope like listening to bones, eyes, and more. While the mainstream narrative of the stethoscope’s invention centers around one man’s (Laënnec’s) brilliance, these chapters present a fascinating compilation of less renowned utilizations of the stethoscope across various cultures.

The rest of Stethoscope focuses on more contemporary viewpoints of the stethoscope. Chapter 4 discusses the transition to routine medical practice throughout the twentieth century and stethoscopic listening in other fields. Chapter 5 covers contemporary pedagogy for the stethoscope in medical schools. Chapters 6 and 7 focus on today and the future, discussing its potential obsolescence, recent innovations, and the outlook for the iconic tool. Potential obsolescence is a widespread and ongoing debate in medical practice. Harris and Rice present both sides of the debate without strong contention. Arguments for continued use are centered on subjective experience and human connection. Arguments against involve technological advancements and issues with uniform interpretation of stethoscopic findings. The chapter does well in providing a cursory cultural context for the debate but does not expound on the debate in its entirety. A notable omission is the efficacy of the stethoscope as a tool. Instead of focusing on scientific evidence, the chapter focuses on less empiric arguments, like the stethoscope’s benefit of requiring the physician’s bedside presence.

The innovations discussed in chapter 7 encompass contemporary variations such as modifications in resource-limited settings, use during the COVID-19 pandemic, and digitalization of the stethoscope. The latter is particularly notable as a future direction for the medical icon. While the chapter describes superior efficacy, it also describes poor uptake by physicians. Harris and Rice recount individual provider reasons for avoiding this new technology, but it does leave the reader wanting more elaboration on why providers are avoidant of a potentially superior tool.

If anything, Harris and Rice undersell the magnitude of their work. The influence of the stethoscope is multiplied by every physician who dons one, making it not just an icon, but one of the most impactful medical inventions in history. This ubiquity makes it even more important to understand the stethoscope’s cultural impact, a task at which Stethoscope exceeds expectations.

Stethoscope offers a concise cultural history of a quintessential medical icon. Through a review of literature, art, and less renowned cultural contexts, Harris and Rice present a new take on a well-told history. They illustrate both the mainstream historical narrative of the stethoscope and refreshingly new compilations of unconventional viewpoints. Readers who think they know the history of the stethoscope may be surprised to learn about variation across historical, geographical, and nonmedical contexts. Beyond historical facts, Stethoscope presents cultural and symbolic impacts of the stethoscope over time. Tracing the historical and cultural context of the medical instrument pushes the reader to analyze the broader transitions in doctor-patient relationships. At a time when virtual patients and telemedicine are on the rise, Stethoscope serves as a crucial reminder for clinicians to be present at the bedside, use their senses, and listen carefully to their patients.


[1]. Ariel Roguin, “Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826): The Man behind the Stethoscope,” Clinical Medicine & Research 4, no. 3 (September 2006): 230-35.

[This work is reproduced here from H-Net under a Creative Commons License. |

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