It should come to no surprise to us that the invention of percussion came from the mind of a musician. Leopold Auenbrugger was a physician, but he was also a composer who wrote an opera for an Austrian empress. However the coming together of music and medicine had its origins in watching his father tap on the side of wine barrels to determine their contents.
In medical school, he studied at Leyden with a formal pupil of Herman Boerhaave, graduating in 1752. He was an excellent student and for his thesis wrote on the aphorisms of Hippocrates. After working in an unpaid post at the Spanish Hospital, and then climbing the ladder to Attending Physician, he resigned in 1762 from working in hospitals.
In a text called Inventum Novum published in 1761, or A New Discovery that Enables the Physician from the Percussion of the Human Thorax to Detect the Diseases Hidden Within the Chest, he explained the very idea of percussing the chest. One passage reads, “For in truth, through these techniques a sound is perceived either higher or lower or more or less clear or even almost stifled.”
He described the sound of the lung in various scenarios, but instead of this technique being well received, he was charged with plagiarism! Since Hippocrates had described the succussion splash, the pleural rub, Auenbugger was accused of copying from Hippocrates. However, this was not the case. Indeed, Auenbrugger was first to percuss the chest in normal and abnormal variants and to use percussion formally in physical diagnosis.
“What I have written, I have proved again and again by the testimony of my own senses and amid laborious and tedious exertions; still guarding, on all occasions, against the seductive influence of self-love.”
Although his work might have never been recognized, he was fortunate that during his lifetime, Corvisart, who was Napoleon’s physician, found the work and popularized it.
Cummins, S. L. (1945). Auenbrugger and Laennec: The Discoverers of Percussion and Auscultation. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 38(8), 409–412.
Leopold Auenbrugger’s Inventum Novum. (1923). JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 80(8), 576. doi:10.1001/jama.1923.02640350058042
Smith, J. J. (1962). The Inventum Novum of Joseph Leopold Auenbrugger. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 38(10), 691–701.