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History of Medicine: Of forceps and family secrets

12 Apr, 2010
A set of obstetrical forceps. Image credit: Wellcome Images

A set of obstetrical forceps

Most of us have the odd skeleton or two rattling around in the family closet. Taken out and dusted they can tell some interesting stories. While preparing the text for the ‘Birth’ topic recently added to the Wellcome Collection’s website, I discovered one about a family of French obstetricians who, as well as being very partial to the name Peter, kept a lucrative family secret for over 100 years.

William Chamberlan was a Huguenot surgeon who fled with his family from Paris to England in the second half of the sixteenth century to escape religious persecution. He called two of his sons Peter – Peter the Elder and Peter the Younger.

The two Peters became male midwives and one of them – probably the Elder – invented obstetrical forceps. To keep the invention a trade secret and establish the family as the only people who were able to save the lives of mothers and babies during difficult deliveries, they hid the forceps in a box, which they carried to the homes of women in childbirth. Legend has it the women and anyone else present in the room had to be blindfolded before the miraculous ‘secret’ was produced.

The family secret earned the Chamberlans prestigious positions at court. Peter the Elder was physician to Queen Anne, wife of James I. The son of Peter the Younger (who was also named Peter) delivered Charles II, and his son Hugh delivered the Old Pretender and Queen Anne.

It also earned them the wrath of the Royal College of Physicians. In those days surgeons and physicians were distinct professions. To practice medicine as a physician, you needed a medical degree and licence, whilst surgeons were originally barbers by trade. As well as cutting hair, barbers had a sideline in tooth extraction, blood-letting and surgery. They used to hang the bloody bandages from their surgery on a pole to dry, and the wind wrapped the bandages around the pole – an image that gave rise to the red and white striped spiral that later came to be the barber’s symbol.

As midwives without academic medical training and members of the Barber Surgeon Company, Peter the Elder and Peter the Younger were both prosecuted by the Royal College of Physicians for practicing medicine without a licence. Peter the Elder was thrown into Newgate prison for the offence and only released by order of Queen Anne, whom he attended in childbirth. His younger brother’s son Peter was the first Chamberlan to gain a medical degree and become a member of the Royal College – although he was dismissed from it later for his efforts to form an organisation of midwives.

As for the forceps, their secret was eventually leaked, probably by the son of Hugh (also called Hugh), in around 1730, from which time onwards their use became widespread.

Penny Bailey, Writer, Wellcome Trust

Image credit: Wellcome Images
4 Comments leave one →
  1. wangchongyang permalink
    1 Sep, 2011 12:47 am

    I am an obstetrician in China.Glad to see your article.I also interested in the history of forceps.Your content is I did not know before.Can you tell me your reference of this paper.thank you.
    Your readers

  2. wangchongyang permalink
    1 Sep, 2011 12:51 am

    for reply


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