Leopold Auenbrugger was an outstanding physician from Austria and studied under van Swieten. He made one of the most important contributions of the eighteenth century which was the discovery of percussion.
Auenbrugger was the son of an innkeeper. During his childhood , he observed his father who used the technique of tapping objects, such as barrels, to assess the fluid level of their contents. He was also a very talented musician and had a fine sense of perception of sound. According to historians, both these facts may have contributed to the development of his discovery.
Auenbrugger studied various portions of the human body, especially the thorax, applying the percussion technique. He published his important monograph "Inventum novum ex percussione thoracis humani ut signo abstrusos interni pectoris morbos detegendi", in 1761 in Vienna. The English translation of the title would be "A new discovery that enables the physician from the percussion of the human thorax to detect the diseases hidden within the chest." In his work, Auenbrugger described the use of the percussion technique for the diagnosis of the diseases of the lungs including empyema, pericardial and pleural effusions and enlargement of the heart ("aneurysm of the heart").
A chapter of Auenbrugger's historic monograph is displayed.
Auenbrugger's discovery was received with skepticism and the procedure went unnoticed for almost fifty years until Jean-Nicolas Corvisart, Napoleon's physician, revived and initiated its use in his clinical practice. In 1808, Corvisart published an important monograph on the technique of percussion under the title, "Nouvelle methode pour reconnaitre les maladies internes de la poitrine par la percussion de cette cavite."
Corvisart's monograph was a translation of Auenbrugger's book augmented with his own experience of more than twenty years and included further refinement of this new diagnostic modality. With a great sense of honesty, Corvisart wrote in the preface of his book:
"I could have raised myself to the rank of an author by revamping the work of Auenbrugger and publishing a work on percussion. But by that I would sacrifice the name of Auenbrugger to my own vanity, that I do not wish to do: it belongs to him, it is his beautiful and rightful discovery (Inventum novum, as he justly says) which I wish to bring to life."
Corvisart was a strong advocate of percussion in physical diagnosis. Following the publication of his work, the percussion technique was applied by an increasing number of physicians. This procedure, which had remained obscure for about fifty years, was broadly accepted in Europe in a very short period of time and became an integral part of physical examination. Percussion was used for the diagnosis of diseases of the lungs, empyema, and pleural and pericardial effusions. This technique was also employed until the early decades of the 20th century to determine the size of the heart by delineating its left border.
Corvisart JN. Nouvelle methode pour reconnaitre les maladies internes de la poitrine par la percussion de cette cavite. Paris, De Migneret, 1808