This treatise on diseases of the chest and the stethoscope was published in 1825, when the stethoscope was still a relatively new instrument. ‘Percussion’ means tapping parts of the body and using the resulting sound to detect abnormalities.
The treatise outlines various chest diseases and the methods of diagnosing them. The work is translated from the French. In his Translator’s Preface, W N Ryland describes how to use a stethoscope and alludes to some of the objections facing the instrument in the early years of its existence.
The invention of the stethoscope
The stethoscope was invented in France in 1816 by a physician called Rene Laennac. There are several accounts of how Laennac came to invent the instrument, but in his treatise De l'Auscultation Médiate
, Laennac writes that he came up with the idea while attending a young woman. Because of her age and sex, he felt it inappropriate to listen to her heart and breathing by pressing his ear against her body. He improvised by using paper rolled into a cylinder, and discovered that this enabled him to hear better than if his ear had been directly against her chest. He went on to develop a wooden stethoscope similar to the one shown at the beginning of this manual.
The stethoscope in Middlemarch
When Casaubon becomes ill, Lydgate uses a stethoscope to examine him. Eliot notes that the stethoscope ‘had not become a matter of course in practice at that time’, so Lydgate’s use of it suggests his willingness to embrace modern methods, as well as reflecting the influence of French practice on his work.
is set in the early 1830s, but it was published in 1871, by which time the use of the stethoscope was widespread. Eliot’s treatment of the stethoscope in Middlemarch
is one of the many ways in which she reminds readers that the world of the novel is some 40 years earlier than the one in which she was writing.