baby

The childbirth breakthrough one family kept secret for almost two centuries.

Childbirth has never been without its complications. Even now, in third world (and even in first world) countries, the act of birthing a child comes with risks to both mother and baby.

Thankfully we’ve seen the invention and introduction of a number of tools and techniques that have reduced the danger. One crucial, now almost given, piece of equipment are the forceps.

They had a “profound” influence on obstetrics when they were first widely used in the 18th century in England and Scotland as they allowed for the speedy delivery of the baby during difficult or obstructed labours.

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Image: iStock

But they could have been around a lot earlier, if it wasn't for the Chamberlen family who first invented the instrument before keeping it a family secret for almost two centuries.

As for why, we're not sure, although generations of doctors the family produced were physicians to English royalty, remaining in favour regardless of changing rulers that some believe was partially afforded to them thanks to their access to the early forceps.

Historians believe obstetric forceps, which enabled doctors to extract a living child during birth, were invented by Pierre/Peter Chamberlen, the son of William Chamberlen, a French surgeon who migrated in England in 1596 to escape religious violence that reigned in France.

The eldest of two surgeon brothers, both called Pierre, became obstetrician-surgeon to Queen Henriette, the wife of King Charles the I. This position was succeeded by his nephew, also called Peter, who marked the start of a dynasty of royal obstetricians from the family.

The Chamberlens took many precautions to keep the secret in the family. In the 1950 book Eternal Eve: The History of Gynecology and Obstetrics, author Harvey Graham details that they were delivered at the house of the woman giving birth in a special carriage, accompanied by "a huge wooden box adorned with gilded carvings" which took two men to carry.

This tricked people into thinking it contained a highly complex and enormous machine. The woman in labour was also blindfolded so she couldn't see the secret, only Chamberlens were allowed in the locked room but from outside relatives could hear "peculiar noises, ringing bells" and other "sinister" sounds as the secret was used.

Obstretical-forceps
Image: Wiki
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Used in particularly in difficult births, the forceps allowed the barber-surgeons to avoid some infant deaths that tended to occur with previous approaches, such as hooks, which extracted them in parts. They were particularly helpful at a time when rickets was becoming widespread.

It remained a family secret until 1670, when Peter's grandnephew, Hugh Chamberlen the elder, went to Paris with the aim of raising money by selling the forcep secret to the French government. He was reportedly tasked with delivering a 38 year old rhachitic dwarf with a grossly deformed pelvis who was in obstructed labour. Both mother and child died so he returned empty handed.

He did however bring back and translate a French text which he published in England with the title "The Accomplish't Midwife" that had an instant impact and legacy on British obstetrics for the next 100 years.

In the foreword, he also alluded to his family's use of the forceps.

Listen: Giving birth doesn't have to be traumatic. Post continues after audio.

"I will now take leave to offer an apology for not publishing the secret I mention we have to extract children without hooks, where other artists use them, viz., there being my father and two brothers living that practise this art. I cannot esteem it my own to dispose of, nor publish it without injury to them," he wrote.

With no male children, it's believed the younger Hugh let the secret out in the final years of his life. He passed away in 1728, just a few years before they became of general use in 1734.

Almost 100 years later in 1813, five pairs of the original instrument of the first Dr Peter Chamberlen were found under the floorboards of the attic in his old house where they had been hidden by his wife Ann after he passed away. They are now kept by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London, along with several hundred others as practitioners tried to redesign the forceps.

As well as creating the revolutionising tool, the Chamberlen family regularly campaigned for the creation of a society of midwives (which was repeatedly rejected) as well as coming up with an early idea of a national health insurance scheme some 254 years before the National Health Service was introduced in Britain in 1948. (Post continues after audio).

While forceps are used less frequently thanks to the advancements in performing cesarean sections and the introduction of the vacuum extractor, they are still important.

Even over 300 years later, there are still many similarities between modern forceps and the Chamberlen's early designs and there's no doubt that they enabled a critically-signficant advancement in the management of childbirth.

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