|Date(s):||January 1, 1670 to December 31, 1770|
|Location(s):||England | France|
|Tag(s):||Childbirth, Midwifery, Obstetric, Forceps, Chamberlen|
|Course:||“The History of Medicine and Public Health,” Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis|
Although there are many tools that have contributed to Obstetric medicine, only one was kept a family secret within a family of barber surgeons and practitioners of midwifery for over 100 years. This secret tool is referred to as the Chamberlen forceps. Forceps have been around for some time with Sanskrit writing from approximately 1500 BC, and come in many different forms. Forceps have many uses such as clamping, grasping, holding, cutting, dissecting, dilating and suctioning. Obstetrical forceps specifically are designed to smoothly hold and pull the baby head during vaginal delivery. The Chamberlen forceps were designed with a cephalic curve to fit around the baby's head but lacked the pelvic curve characteristic of the modern forceps.
Peter Chamberlen, later referred to as “the Elder,” invented the obstetrical forceps in the late 16th century in France as a means of avoiding both maternal and neonatal morbidity. Chamberlen went through great measures to introduce yet keep secret of the invention of this tool. He was forced to flee France and settle in England because of religious persecution, later joining the Barber Surgeon Company, often finding himself in trouble. His troubles however did not stop there. Peter later found himself being committed into prison for prescribing medicine and practicing midwifery and keeping his methods a secret, going against the rules of the College of Physicians.
The Chamberlens made this obstetric tool a secret for two reasons. The first reason is because there was opposition at the time in the medical and surgical establishments to using this sort of tool in childbirth and it was also considered “meddlesome midwifery,” and could cause harm to the mother. Another reason why they went to great lengths to keep the forceps a secret is that a lot of money could be earned by being the people who could deliver a baby when no one else could. The Chamberlen family were said to have arrived at the house of the woman to be delivered in a special carriage. They were accompanied by a huge wooden box adorned with gilded carvings. It always took two of them to carry the box which everyone believed it contained some massive and highly complicated machine. The woman who was due to give birth was blindfold to avoid her seeing the family secret. Only the Chamberlens were allowed in the locked lying-in room, from which the terrified relatives heard peculiar noises, ringing bells, and other sinister sounds as the “secret” went to work. In addition to blindfolding the women in labor, the Chamberlen’s would often make a lot of noise to distract what was going on and to mask the noise made from the forceps.
Not all of the Chamberlens found keeping the family secret important. Dr. Peter’s (the nephew of Peter “the Elder) son, Hugh, went to Paris, where tried to sell the secret to the Royal Accoucheur, Clement, for 10,000 crowns. Clément’s challenged Hugh to deliver a grossly deformed rachitic dwarf who had already been in labor for eight days. After many hours sequestered with the woman Hugh failed and returned to England with the secret still unrevealed. The secret tool stayed preserved by Dr. Peter’s wife in a box of various family keepsakes. These were secreted under a trap door in the attic at Woodham Mortimer and were not discovered until 1813. However, the concept must have leaked out and by the early 18th century the first written records of similar but improved instruments appeared, notably from Chapman and Pugh, who both lived within a few miles of the Chamberlen family home in Essex.