Tuning In with the Stethoscope in the Nineteenth Century

Presented by: Dr Melissa Dickson

Date: Friday 11 March 2022
Time: 12–1pm
Location: Online via Zoom 


When, in 1816, René Laennec sought to overcome his difficulties in examining an obese girl with symptoms of heart disease by rolling an exercise book into a cylinder, placing one end at his ear and the other at her precordial region, he discovered that he could hear the sounds of her chest more clearly than if he had applied his ear directly to her body. Three years later, he published a 900 hundred page treatise on the art of mediate auscultation, filled with descriptions of the various sounds he had detected through use of the stethoscope and the diseases they signified. In its gradual adoption by medical practitioners across Europe and America, the stethoscope, a powerful symbol of modern medical practice, marked, as Jonathan Sterne has observed, an important shift in the Western history of listening, whereby the voice of the patient was no longer the basis of diagnosis but existed in relation to other sounds made by and within the patient’s body. However, this shift in medical listening practices and its associated adoption of new techniques and technologies of listening was a gradual and uneven one. Laennec had brought the inner soundscape of the human body – an invisible realm largely beyond the range of the human ear – not only into medical but also more general cultural awareness, and both doctors and patients struggled to conceptualise and to make meaning of that realm.

This paper will argue that, in Britain, although the stethoscope provided new medical insights into the workings of the body, it was a source not only of practical, social, and professional challenges, but also deep confusion, mistrust, and corporeal anxiety. Music, language, and literature played an active role these early, experimental stages of clinical diagnosis by providing rich conceptual frameworks for the exploration and interpretation of a new auditory realm, while proffering both scientific and imaginative explorations of its potential physical, and at times, metaphysical significance.


Melissa Dickson is a Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Birmingham, where she teaches across the long nineteenth century and researches the relationships between Victorian literature, science, and medicine. She is the author of Cultural Encounters with the Arabian Nights in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2019), co-author of Anxious Times: Medicine and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (2019), and co-editor of Progress and Pathology: Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century. Her current work is on explorations of the body’s physiological and psychological responses to sound and music in the nineteenth century. She is delighted to be back at UQ as a visiting academic, having completed her BA, and MPhil here, before moving to London to do her PhD in 2010.


About Research Seminar and Workshop Series


School of Communication and Arts Research Seminar Series

The research seminar and workshop series occur each semester, each with a different topic and guest speaker from UQ or otherwise.

Friday, 24 March

Hybrid: Online via Zoom and in person at the
SCA Writer's Studio
(Level 6, Michie)

Fire Futures: codesigning for resilience

Dr Skye Doherty

Friday, 31 March

Hybrid: Online via Zoom and in person at the
SCA Writer's Studio
(Level 6, Michie)

From Fatigue Studies to Burnout: A Brief History of Work Exhaustion

A/Prof Elizabeth Stephens