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The invention of obstetrics forceps in the 17th century represented a critically important technical advance in the management of childbirth. It was particularly timely in that the new disease, rickets, was becoming widespread and with it, dystocia due to pelvic deformity. The story of the forceps is bound up with five generations of the Chamberlen family (fig 1).1-5
Peter Chamberlen, later known as “the elder,” was born in Paris in 1560, the first son of a Huguenot surgeon, William Chamberlen and his wife Genevieve Vignon. Forced to flee because of religious persecution, the family reached Southampton in 1569 where a second son, also named Peter, was born in 1572. Both sons followed their father’s profession, becoming barber surgeons and well known practitioners of midwifery.
Peter the elder moved to London in 1596 and became surgeon and accoucheur to Queen Anne, wife of James I. His younger brother followed him to London in 1600. Both had joined the Barber Surgeons Company, first incorporated in 1461 under the reign of Edward IV, and both were in frequent trouble with the Company for minor offences such as failing to attend lectures. Peter the elder also came into serious conflict with the College of Physicians (incorporated in 1518 under a charter granted by Henry VIII) for prescribing medicines contrary to the rule of the College. In 1612 he was committed to Newgate prison for this offence and only released after the intercession of the Lord Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1620 it was Peter the younger’s turn to be prosecuted by the College, but he was able to defend himself with a letter from the Lord Chamberlain.
In 1616 the brothers supported a “humble petition of the midwives in and about the city …