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The Chamberlen family (late 1500s - early 1700s)

The Chamberlens settled in England in the late 1500s, and generations of male members of the family pursued medical careers focusing on midwifery. Central to their success was their obstetrical forceps, which they hid for decades. The Chamberlens originally worked at a time when assisting childbirth was the domain of women; man-midwives only became common during the 1700s.

William Chamberlen (c. 1540-96) and his family were Huguenot refugees who arrived from France in 1569. William, his eldest son Peter (1560-1631) and his second son, also called Peter (1572-1626), became barber-surgeons and practitioners in midwifery. Success in difficult deliveries saw Peter the Elder become surgeon and midwife to Queen Anne, wife of James I.

It is thought Peter the Elder designed the first forceps. He and his brother went to extraordinary lengths to hide the invention and protect their lucrative trade. They arrived at a delivery carrying a huge engraved box, giving the false impression that large machinery was involved. The birthing room was cleared save for the Chamberlens and the labouring woman, who was blindfolded.

This kept the family secret for over 100 years. Peter the Younger’s son, known as Dr Peter (1601-83), continued the subterfuge, but his son, Hugh the Elder (1630-1720), was willing to reveal the secret instrument to the French government for a price - an offer that was declined. Hugh’s son, Hugh the Younger (1664-1728), was the last to use the secret tools. He had no male heir, and it appears he revealed the secret. Forceps of similar design came into use in the 1730s.

In 1813 several pairs of forceps once belonging to Dr Peter were found beneath a trap door in his old family home. His wife hid them after his death, an indication of the family’s determination to take the secret to their graves.

Bibliography

W H Prioleau, 'The Chamberlen family and the introduction of obstetrical instruments', Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 27:5 (2002), pp 705-14

B Hibbard, The Obstetrician's Armamentarium: Historical Obstetric Instruments and their Inventors (California: Norman, 1999)

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