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Viennese vibrations: doctors, lungs and opera

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Eighteenth century physician Josef Leopold Auenbrugger, originator of chest percussion, was also part of Vienna’s rich musical life

Links between music and medicine typically focus on ailments, known or suspected, of composers — Beethoven’s deafness, Chopin’s tuberculosis, Schubert’s syphilis, Schumann’s mental disorder, Mozart’s nearly everything, Paganini’s suspected Ehlers–Danlos syndrome. But few doctors have actually written an opera libretto. One exception was the Austrian physician Josef Leopold Auenbrugger (1722–1809) (Box 1).

Auenbrugger earned a firm footnote in the history of medicine by inventing diagnostic chest percussion, a technique he had learnt as boy when testing the level of wine casks in his father’s hotel cellar.1 He noted that a healthy chest, tapped with a finger and listened to with the ear close to the chest, resonated like a cloth-covered drum, whereas the presence of lung disease, especially tuberculosis, produced a muffled higher-pitched sound. During his years of research as physician-in-chief at the Holy Trinity Hospital in Vienna in the 1750s, Auenbrugger validated his clinical observations on diagnostic percussion, first, by comparing clinical assessments with postmortem findings and, second, by injecting fluid into the pleural cavity of cadavers and showing that percussion could accurately define the physical…