Use of Forceps in Delivery
The Dirty Secret of the Doctors Chamberlen
The use of forceps to deliver babies has had a long twisted history. As far back as the twelfth century there were instruments described in such a way as to only be useful in removing babies that had died. The use of obstetrical forceps to effect delivery to save the child didn’t come into prominence until the mid-eighteenth century.
Over a century later than it should have.
Power, fame, and greed all played a role in keeping this instrument a secret so that those with the knowledge could claim that they alone could deliver patients when everyone else had failed. But before we condemn the foul secrecy that was used for personal gain, the secret of omission that was responsible for countless of thousands of babies’ deaths for over a hundred years, let’s first talk about what the forceps does for us today.
Today the use of forceps, applied correctly, is a safe method of delivering a baby, no matter what horror stories well-meaning relatives tell already worried mothers-to-be. The important phrase is “applied correctly.” When they are placed the way they were designed, there’s actually less pressure on the baby’s head than without them, as a protective halo of metal surrounds the brain and protects it from the compression/decompression forces of the vaginal sidewalls and pubic bone. There are ways of checking for correct application, and when the criteria aren’t met, a forceps delivery should not occur. Simple. But when criteria are met, the forceps are handy in delivering a baby whose heart rate is becoming dangerous. (The same goes for the vacuum extractor, but that is another story.)
In 1813, a woman found an old hidden trunk that described and contained the invention of the Chamberlen family–the obstetrical forceps. In this trunk was evidence indicating that Peter Chamberlen, who died in 1631, was the first to use the technique. In fact, he claimed to be the one who could handle the impossible cases. Along with his brother, they became prominent practitioners with the secret, and used their success to control the instruction of midwifery in England. Peter’s nephew, also named Peter, was the first Chamberlen to actually become a doctor. He maintained the secrecy, assuring his success and prominence, and was the attendant at births of the royal family, who alone benefited from his solution for difficult births.
Had any of the future monarchs died at their deliveries, like the “little people”, because of not using forceps, history might be vastly different!
Meanwhile, other male practitioners of the art became the target of pamphlets that denounced the death rate of women delivered while attended by men. Dr. Chamberlen, armed with his secret, issued his own “Cry of Women and Children as Echoed Forth in the Compassions of Peter Chamberlen.” After his death, his son, Hugh, tried to sell the family secret to a French physician, Mauriceau, claiming he could deliver even the most difficult cases in minutes. Mauriceau tested him by assigning him a woman in labor who was a dwarf, and he failed. But the two men remained friends, and when Hugh Chamberlen translated Mauriceau’s book into English, he wrote in the preface of how, “My father, brothers, and myself (though none else in Europe as I know) have by God’s blessing and our own industry attained to and long practiced a way to deliver women…without (harm) to them or their infants.” He later sold his secret in Holland, where the Medical-Pharmaceutical College of Amsterdam was given the sole privilege of licensing physicians, for a huge amount of money, to use the secret technique of the Chamberlens. Finally, someone with scruples bought the privilege and went public, but it seems he himself was sold only one part of the forceps pair, meaning that either he was defrauded by the Medical College or Chamberlen had done it to them. Meanwhile, babies suffered the consequences of this thievery.
Hugh’s son, also named Hugh, was a friend of the Duke of Buckingham, and because of this his statue stands today in Westminster Abbey. He’s the one who finally freed the obstetrical forceps for general use at the beginning of the eighteenth century, ending the countless needless infant deaths that his family’s secret had caused. About the same time, a Dr. De la Motte addressed the Paris Academy of Medicine, declaring that a pair of forceps he had just seen exhibited there could never be used in a living woman; he also stated how he felt about anyone who might invent a successful instrument like that, and what should happen to him should he keep it secret for is own profit: “He deserved to be tied to a barren rock and have his vitals plucked out by vultures”.
That’s got to sound more beautiful in French. Move over Prometheus.
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