Listening to the Beating Heart: The History of the Stethoscope

Listening to the Beating Heart: The History of the Stethoscope
Rachel Jackson: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Two to three class periods

Required Documents
Why Doctors Use Stethoscopes
Making a Stethoscope


Rachel Jackson passed away in the short period of time between her husband Andrew Jackson being elected to the presidency, and his taking office. She had been a target of political attack during the election of 1828. She had been accused of adultery, and bigamy and had been physically and emotionally affected by the scrutiny and stress of this situation. She had a heart attack shortly before Christmas and although she seemed to be recovering she died on December 22. At the time of her death the study of heart disease and other thoracic conditions was in its infancy. In 1816 twelve years before her death French Physician René Théophile Hyacinthe Laennec, known as the father of modern knowledge of pulmonary disease, invented the stethoscope which he called the chest examiner. Although its use may not have prevented her death, his invention and it’s subsequent use throughout the years have saved countless lives through his then revolutionary method of diagnosing diseases called auscultation which involves listening to and identifying various sounds made by different body structures.


1. Students will be able to describe and explain several conditions that physicians use a stethoscope to diagnose.

2. Students will build and conduct experiments with their own stethoscopes.

Materials Required:

Why Doctors Use Stethoscopes worksheet; Making a Stethoscope Handout; a balloon; a piece of tubing; 2 small funnels; scissors; a timer; a rubber band


1.  The teacher will distribute one half sheet of paper to each student and ask them to list as many uses of a stethoscope as they can think of. This activity will serve a dual purpose as a pretest and a discussion starter. The teacher will ask for volunteers to share their answers and the class will discuss what is correct and what is not. The teacher will collect the responses as a formative pretest.

2.  The teacher will assign the information worksheet titled Why Doctors use Stethoscopes. The students will use the Stethoscopes for Diagnosis and Heartbeat Listening website listed in the Linkable Resources section above to complete the assignment. This could be given as a homework assignment or done at school if a computer lab is available. The web page is fairly brief and could be printed and duplicated if necessary.

3.  Once the initial investigation is complete the teacher will pass out the Making a Stethoscope handout and the student can work on constructing their own stethoscopes. This can be completed individually or in small groups depending on the amount of materials are available for this construction. Students will record their data from the questions on the handout.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by having students research the invention of other medical instruments or procedures that have contributed to an increase in human lifespan. Some examples of this may be the hypodermic needle and the development of inoculations, or the blood pressure cuff.

Sources & Resources:


Blaufox, M. Donald. An Ear to the Chest: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of the Stethoscope. Informa Healthcare, 2001.
Biography of René Laennec
Stethoscopes for Diagnosis and Heartbeat Listening
Stethoscope Project
This lesson was developed by Robert McClelland, Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
The making a stethoscope portion was adapted from the Science Kids website