The Chamberlen Family Secret

by Lani Goodman (Vanderbilt University)

In the 17th century, forceps were a new tool in obstetrics that were, interestingly enough, kept a secret for over 100 years by the Chamberlens, who invented them.

There were eight Chamberlen men, divided into five generations. Some speculate that William Chamberlen (first generation) was the family member to first develop the forceps during his stay in Amsterdam, while others consider his son, Peter Chamberlen II, to be the inventor. In either case, all following members of the Chamberlen family practiced obstetrics, attended to the Royal Family of England, and used their secret instruments in cases of difficult deliveries.

The forceps were revolutionary instruments in that they significantly reduced the mortality rate for women and their fetuses in difficult deliveries by changing the position of the fetus in the uterus, making the delivery safer and easier. Before the invention of forceps, difficult deliveries generally ended with an abortion of the baby, or the death of both mother and fetus. In very rare cases, Caesarian-sections were performed, which typically meant death for the mother.

In order to preserve their secret, the Chamberlens adopted a very particular method of delivering babies. They would arrive with a beautifully carved, extremely heavy wooden box that encased the secret instruments. Once entering the patient’s room, the Chamberlen would ask that everyone leave, so that only he and the pregnant mother were left. He then blindfolded her, and she would remain blindfolded throughout the delivery to guarantee she would never see the forceps. After delivering the baby, he would clean the instruments, replace them in the box, and only then could family and friends enter the room to see the baby.

It is unknown exactly which of the Chamberlens was the first to leak the family secret, but it is generally thought to be a member of either the fourth or fifth generation. Another theory is that one of the craftsmen who constructed the forceps for the family was the person to let the secret out.

Prioleau, William H. "The Chamberlen Family and the Introduction of Obstetrical Instruments." Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain & Ireland 27.5 (2002): 705-714.

Rushen, Joyce. "The Secret 'Iron Tongs' of Midwifery." Historian (1991): 12-14.

Dunn, P. M. "The Chamberlen Family (1560-1728) and Obstetric Forceps." Archives of Disease in Childhood : the Journal of the British Paediatric Association : Fetal and Neonatal Edition. 81.3 (1999): F232-F234.

Richardson, Ruth. "Chamberlen's Forceps." From the medical museum. Lancet 358.9289 (2001): 1279.

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  1. What a scary way to give birth: alone & blindfolded! Any idea why the Chamberlens felt the forceps had to be kept a secret? What were they trying to protect: reputation? a 'trade' secret? Could there have been some sort of persectuion for introducing a instrument into the delivery process? Very interesting piece of birthing history...thanks!

  2. What an interesting historical context. It is kind of like company secrets today lol. Doesn't it seem that the root of all of this was money. Both to keep the secret and later to spill the beans?

  3. We have certainly came a long way but thanks for sharing this history.

  4. Wow, that's a scary piece of history. I'm constantly amazed by stories like this. If someone put this delivery scenario in a book everyone would think it was fictional. Thanks for the interesting post.

  5. Great post. Learned something new, I wonder why they kept it secret for so long. I wonder if it was perceived as a bad way to give birth, with a tool.

    Then again as studio points out. What a scary way for a person to keep birth. If I read this post right. It means that the queen or a member of the royal family was the one that was alone and blindfolded.

  6. Great lead sentence--made me really want to know how/why this invention was kept in the dark for so long. Nice job!

  7. Why on earth would they keep it a secret, instead of selling them to all of the other doctors in the country? Interesting.

  8. At least they cleaned the instruments - but such a strange and somewhat baroque tale. Amazing they kept it going for all those generations.

  9. If I had seen those things coming at me while I was in labor, I think I might have asked for a blindfold!


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