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The Stethoscope and

Its Connection to TB

The old stethoscope pictured here once belonged to my father and would have been similar to those used by the doctors in Breathing Room for listening to their patients’ lungs.

But the very first stethoscope--made in 1816 by the French physician Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec--looked very different. Built of wood, the original stethoscope resembled the flute Laënnec played as a pastime.  To listen to the patient’s lungs, Laennec placed one end of the wooden tube against the patient’s chest and the other end to his ear.

Laënnec used his invention to study the sounds of both healthy and sick lungs. These observations, along with information he gained from autopsies, provided the first real understanding of how tuberculosis affects people from infection, through symptoms and illness, to death.

In a sad twist of fate, Laënnec himself died of tuberculosis in 1826.



People used to have the unfortunate habit of spitting on the ground in public. Because tuberculosis can be spread by the germs found in this spit, women didn’t want their skirt hems to touch the ground. As a result, shorter skirts became the fashion.


In the first half of the 20th century, people were encouraged to sleep with a window open even in cold weather since both the ventilation and the cold air were believed to protect against tuberculosis.

Additionally, many homes were built with sleeping porches, often on the second floor, to allow for maximum ventilation. Next time you drive around a neighborhood with older homes, see if you can spot a screened-in porch.


Sitting outside in the sun for long periods of time became a common treatment for TB patients. This treatment—called heliotherapy or phototherapy—soon increased the popularity of sunbathing for healthy people as well.  Many of the reclining chairs originally designed for tuberculosis patients soon were favored by sunbathers as well.  Adirondack chairs--with their wide, flat arms for holding books, drinks, or medicines–are still used and enjoyed by people today.


Since patients suffering from tuberculosis often lost their appetites, many people believed that eating a healthy diet, one especially rich in milk and other dairy products, could serve as a defense against the disease.  Whereas today we stress foods low in fat and calories, back then parents were encouraged to supplement their children’s diet to increase the number of calories in each meal.


Schools with special open air classrooms were built for sickly, undernourished children to attend.  Often walls were removed so the children sat in desks surrounded by fresh air, no matter how harsh the weather.  The schools also had large windows kept open year- round. You can see pictures and learn more about such schools by searching for Open Air Schools for Children with Tuberculosis on the Internet or by visiting your own state’s historical society.

Is it called a SANITORIUM or a SANITARIUM??

These two words are similar and sometimes used interchangeably.  But, in general, sanatorium—with the letter O—refers to a place where sick people, like those with tuberculosis, went to rest and get medical treatment. A sanitarium—with the letter A—is more commonly used to describe a place where people would go to foster their health through diet, exercise, good hygiene, and massage—sort of like a modern day spa.

Laënnec’s stethoscope c 1820

Image © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture

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