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RCOG Heritage: The Chamberlen Family

The original Chamberlen forceps were rediscovered under a secret trap-door in an attic in Woodham Mortimer Hall in Essex in 1813, by the mother-in-law of Dr William Codd, the then owner. The Chamberlen family had sold Woodham Mortimer Hall in 1715. The four pairs of forceps, three levers, three crotchets and three fillets were subsequently gifted to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

It is thought that the original forceps were devised by Peter Chamberlen the elder, who died in 1631. The four original pairs show progressive refinements in design, especially of the “lock” or “articulation” between the two blades.

Prior to the introduction of forceps, obstructed labour was dealt with by podalic version and breech extraction, often using levers or hooks. Alternatively, the baby was sacrificed and delivered piecemeal after being reduced by destructive instruments.

The importance of the forceps can barely be overstated, although many contemporary conservative practitioners, such as John Maubray, were outspoken in their opposition. Partially because of this antagonism and partially because of their financial value in terms of fees, the forceps were kept as a closely guarded secret by the Chamberlen family for over 100 years.

The Chamberlen family were French Huguenots who had been forced to emigrate from France after the decree of Catherine de Medici that ordered the slaughter of the Huguenots in France during the wars of religion (1562–1598). William Chamberlen, a surgeon, together with his wife and family, escaped to Southampton in 1569 after the Battle of Jarnac. The elder son Peter stayed with his father in Southampton while the rest of the family moved to London. This Peter, who designed the original forceps, died in 1631. The second of William’s sons was also called Peter (Peter the Younger).  He predeceased his older brother in 1628. His son, confusingly, was also called Peter. He is usually known as “Dr Peter” (1601–1683). It was he who wrote in his autobiography, The Voice of Rhama, in 1647, “fame begot me envie and secret enemies which mightily increased when my father added to me the knowledge of deliveries”. Dr Peter was clearly highly intelligent, studying at Cambridge, Heidelberg and Padua, and achieving an MD at the age of 18 in 1619. Because of his frivolous dress style he upset the President of the College of Physicians and did not achieve admission until 1628. He was expelled from the College in 1649 for nonattendance at meetings and he then retired to Woodham Mortimer Hall.

After Oliver Cromwell was defeated and the monarchy restored in 1660, Dr Peter was brought back into court favour by Charles II. He later had his son Hugh appointed as Physician in Ordinary at the Court in 1673. Meanwhile, he embarked upon several mad and extravagant schemes, including a labour house for thieves, a public bank, an attempt to obtain a monopoly on the manufacture of baths and the foundation of a sisterhood of midwives, from which he would stand to benefit from a fee from each of their deliveries.

He had two wives and fourteen children, who are commemorated on his tomb in the churchyard at Woodham Mortimer where he died and was buried in 1683.

Hugh Senior was born in 1630, the eldest son of Dr Peter Chamberlen who had died at Woodham Mortimer Hall in 1683. He practised as a doctor, although he was later prosecuted for having insufficient qualifications. He was very bright and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1681 and became physician to Charles II and later James II. However, he missed the rapid premature birth of James Edward Stuart the “old pretender” and son of James II. He had multiple outside interests as did his father. He developed a public health insurance scheme and a banking scheme which subsequently collapsed. A contemporary critic wrote the unsympathetic lines:

“He’s a little old man very pale of complexion
Into many deep things makes a narrow inspection
His head’s very long and his hand’s very small
Fit to fathom a gentle Tuquoque withall.
To give you his character duly compleat
He’s a doctor, projector, man-midwife, and cheat.”

He is said to have had Jacobite sympathies after James II was ousted by William and Mary. He fell out of favour with the Royal Society and left England for good, settling in Amsterdam, where he died in 1726.

Hugh Chamberlen senior was an accomplished obstetrician, who travelled to confinements in a closed carriage together with the special gilded box which contained the “secret forceps”. It is said that the forceps were only brought out when the room had been cleared and the mother blindfolded.

In 1670 Hugh Senior attempted to sell the secret to the French court physicians. He was invited to demonstrate their use on a case selected by the celebrated Parisian obstetrician Francois Mauriceau. The mother was a rachitic dwarf with a contracted pelvis who had been in labour for eight days. Chamberlen failed to deliver the baby – we imagine to the smug satisfaction of Mauriceau. However, Hugh Chamberlen may have had the last laugh because he persuaded Mauriceau to give him a copy of his highly revered textbook.  Chamberlen translated it into English and sold it as The accomplisht midwife, much to his financial gain, said to be as much as 30 thousand pounds.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Palfyn developed his “mains de fer” forceps in Ghent, possibly based on the Chamberlen model. It is also possible that Hugh Chamberlen sold the secret of his forceps to the Van Roonhuysian family in Holland when he returned to Amsterdam in 1699. As the century advanced, many alternative designs of the obstetric forceps appeared and their use became universally adopted.

Hugh Chamberlen junior was born in 1664, the eldest son of Hugh Senior. He also became a court physician. He was widely liked and respected by London Society and he is commemorated by the rare accolade of a cenotaph in Westminster Abbey. He died in 1728.

Elsewhere on the site

History of the RCOG
Information about the history of the College and the development of the specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology
About the College
Information about the RCOG’s current work to improve women’s health care worldwide