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  • The Male Midwives Called Peter and the Empty Box Trick June 17, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    The Chamberlen brothers were first generation French Hugenots whose father had fled to Britain in 1569: one brother Peter was born in Paris (1560) and the other brother Peter was born in Southampton (1572). Yes, you read that right. Two sons and both were called Peter: a fair introduction to a very unusual family. (And guess what Peter the younger called his eldest son…) Onomastic curiosities apart, the two brothers are famous today because they introduced forceps to the birthing room. In births where the baby had problems coming, the forceps proved a revolutionary tool, of course. However, the brothers Peter felt extremely proprietorial towards their invention. Given that the forceps were so simple in design even a glimpse would give them away, so the brothers came up with the most extraordinary stratagem to protect their secret, a stratagem that kept forceps a Chamberlen secret to the early 1700s (and that probably doomed several tens of thousands of emerging babies who could have benefited from the technology).* In the words of Jenny Carter, in With Child:

    They would arrive at a confinement with a huge wooden box carved in gilt; two people needed to carry it in, the patient was blindfolded and the midwife was ushered out. Then to the sound of ringing bells [!] and the slapping of wooden sticks so that the noise of metal blades was disguised they would set to work.

    Beach has been present at three births (and hopes against hope never to make it to four): quite what the effect of ringing bells and slapping wooden sticks would have been in the later stages of labour it is difficult to say. Very possibly, though, the mother would have had other things on her mind. It is also worth noting that as forceps would only have been used in difficult operations the forceps would only ever have been removed from the empty wooden box every six or seven births? But then there is another problem. Did the Chamberlens really use this stratagem: James Hobson Aveling in The Chamberlens and the midwifery forceps (1882), an excellent nineteenth-century study makes no reference to the empty box and the bells and sticks, not even to the blindfolded mother. Hibbard in 2000 in The Obstetrician’s Armamentarium even writes ‘Stories of how the Chamberlens went about their business abound and have been embellished over the years…’ Beach can’t find any reference prior to 1950. He worries then that we must bid farewell to this bit of bizarre history and stamp it ‘cobblers’. Can anyone save the box, bells and clacking sticks: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com Do your bit for bizarre history today.

    *Aveling makes an interesting defence: ‘The Chamberlens have been unmercifully censured for having kept the invention of the midwifery forceps a family secret, but it is not fair to judge members of our profession who lived two hundred years ago, by the code of ethics which medical men now accept. At that time the possession of a nostrum was not looked upon as degrading or derogatory to its owner; and the custom of not publishing secret modes of practice was very common. Only a little more than a hundred years since, Smellie writes, ‘I have heard a gentleman of eminence in one of the branches of medicine, affirm that he never knew one person of our profession who did not pretend to be in possession of some secret or another.’ When the forceps was invented the age delighted in mystery. No physician was considered accomplished in his art who knew nothing of astrology. The public readily believed in medical marvels, and resorted much to pretentious quacks, many of whom had special protection and privileges granted them. All that can be fairly said against the Chamberlens is, that they were no better than their neighbours, and that they failed to recognize the obligation imposed upon all members of our noble profession of publishing freely and immediately any new method of alleviating human suffering, which, by their industry or genius, they may have been able to discover.’

    18 Jun 2017: Invisible writes ‘On the Forceps Kings (undoubtedly that’s why they call it “crowning…”) I’d never heard that about mothers being blindfolded and noises being made, although I do recall them supposedly muffling the clank of metal by wrapping the objects in cloth. I also seem to recall that they carried them in pockets inside their coats, hence the two-part design.’