English physician Peter Chamberlen the Third (1601–1683) belonged to a prominent family of “man-midwives” who gained a reputation for their life-saving skills in maternal health and obstetrics in 17th-century England. Chamberlen's father and uncle are credited with inventing the modern version of the forceps, a medical device for extracting infants during high-risk deliveries.
Peter Chamberlen the Third and his family managed to keep details about their tong-like metal extraction tool a proprietary mystery for decades, although forceps ultimately came into widespread use in the 19th and 20th centuries to solve problematic birth-canal crises. “The story of the forceps is both extraordinary and disturbing, because it is the story of a life-saving idea that was kept secret for more than a century,” asserted New Yorker contributor Atul Gawande in discussing the Chamberlens. “Whenever they were called in to help a mother in obstructed labor, they ushered everyone else out of the room and covered the mother's lower half with a sheet or a blanket so that even she couldn't see what was going on.”
Born in London on May 8, 1601, Chamberlen is known as Peter the Third to distinguish him from his father, who was called Peter Chamberlen the Younger, and a paternal uncle, Peter Chamberlen the Elder. Adding to the confusion are variant spellings of Chamberlan and Chamberlane, as well as sources that use Pierre, the French version of Peter. What is known definitively is that the family was of French Huguenot origin, a status denoting their adherence to Protestantism and its Reformed faith churches. Because French monarchy remained locked in alliance with the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See in Rome, waves of Huguenots emigrated from France in the mid-1500s. They were welcomed in England, after the marital difficulties of Tudor monarch King Henry VIII prompted him to make an abrupt and historically calamitous break with the Roman Church.
Guillaume (William) Chamberlen was one of the French Huguenots who arrived in England in 1569. William arrived with his first son, Peter Chamberlen the Elder, who had been born in France in 1560; his second son, Peter Chamberlen the Younger, would be born in Southampton, England, in 1572. William and both his sons were employed as barber-surgeons, according to guild records and other historical sources, and Peter the Elder and Peter the Younger were residents of London by 1600. Information on the family's baptisms and marriages was recorded at the French Church on Threadneedle Street, the early home base of Huguenots in that city. A baptism notation for Peter the Younger's son “Pierre Chamberlan,” later known as Peter Chamberlen the Third, is recorded as May 12, 1601. His mother was recorded as Sara Delaune, or de Laune, whose family were also of Huguenot origin.
Medical historians trace a connection between the Chamberlen family and their involvement in the field of obstetrics to developments in mid-16th-century France. In Paris, the barber-surgeon Peter the Elder was a contemporary of Ambroise Paré, a renowned physician who founded a school for midwifery in Paris. Paré was thought to have been influenced by a German-language textbook for medical professionals dating back to 1513, Der Schwangern Frauen und Hebammen Rosengarten (“The Pregnant Women and the Rose Garden of Midwives”), authored by German apothecary Eucharius Rüsslin and widely translated into the vernacular languages of Western Europe. Rüsslin incorporated some ideas from one of the firstknown manuscripts on obstetrical medicine in Western civilization, a tract attributed to the Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus, who practiced in Rome and Alexandria, Egypt, before his death around 138 CE. There was also a Latin text from Swiss obstetrician Jacob Rüff, who died in 1588. Rüff's work mentions the use of a forceps-like instrument in some parts of the Middle East for the extraction of stillbirths. If an expectant mother failed to go into labor and expel the fetus, an in utero stillborn child presented a grave medical situation requiring immediate surgery.
For most of human history, pregnancies were potentially grave medical experiences for the expectant mother. Among the most dangerous third-trimester developments for both mother and fetus were the transverse or breech positions. Ideally, during the labor process the infant entered and exited the birth canal head first; in the event that the attending midwife determined that a baby's hindquarters or feet were positioned to enter the birth canal, the risks were great and the birth process frequently fatal to both mother and child. With posterior-facing infants, there was a risk of rupture, which meant massive bleeding and almost-certain maternal death. A feet-first or breech delivery could strand the newborn in the birth canal, where it would suffocate before being able to draw its first breath of air. Skilled midwives could sometimes turn an infant manually during the labor process, and French pioneer Paré promulgated and perfected these techniques. Paré, Rüsslin, Rüff, and possibly even Soranus may have been familiar with ancient Sanskrit and Mesopotamian medical texts that mention the use of instruments that could resolve birth-canal crises.
The first Peter Chamberlen, the Elder, is believed to have adapted those tools, known as “midwives' spoons,” in London in the 1590s, and he commissioned a special set from metalsmiths. Both he and brother Peter Chamberlen the Younger frequently came into conflict with medical-accreditation agencies in England during their long careers. Peter the Elder was sanctioned by the London College of Barber-Surgeons and spent time in Newgate Prison in 1612. The intercession of the Lord Mayor of London and the high-ranking Archbishop of Canterbury helped secure his release. Peter Chamberlen the Younger also ran afoul of authorities and at one point was charged with practicing medicine without a license.
Peter Chamberlen the Third was educated at a respected academy for boys, Merchant Taylors' School in London, finishing there in 1615. Now age 14, he entered Emmanuel College of Cambridge University. His academic record included a term at the prestigious University of Heidelberg in Germany but his medical degree was completed at the equally prestigious University of Padua in Italy in 1619. Nine years later, in 1628, Peter the Third was admitted as a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, which had rejected his application twice before. He was present at St. James Palace in late May of 1630 when Queen Henrietta Maria, daughter-in-law of Anne of Denmark and the wife of England's King Charles I, gave birth to a male heir, named Charles in honor of his monarch father.
Chamberlen's career was inextricably linked to the challenges presented by the English Civil War and the Interregnum period that followed the public beheading of King Charles I in London in January of 1649. Led by Oliver Cromwell, the conservative Puritan government that replaced the monarchy conducted itself with such ruthlessness in its search for dissenters and those who still secretly practiced the so-called Old Faith (Roman Catholicism) that it, too, was ousted with a series of swift and retributive acts. Twelve years after his father was beheaded, Charles II returned to England amidst vociferous public support and was restored as rightful heir in 1661. Chamberlen suffered one setback during the Interregnum period when he was temporarily expelled from the Royal College of Physicians, perhaps because of his political beliefs. King Charles II would appoint Peter Chamberlen the Third as Physician Ordinary in 1661.
A polymath who engaged in public debates and wrote extensively on the political, social, and economic changes that he witnessed during his lifetime, Chamberlen was the author of a 1647 pamphlet called A Voice in Rhama, or, The Crie of Women and Children, which advocated for the establishment of a professional body of trained midwives in England. The traditional female midwives as well as Chamberlen's fellow physicians both opposed this suggestion, which he had first proposed to King Charles I in 1634. A Voice in Rhama was his written retort to the action of the Royal College of Physicians 13 years earlier when he was rebuked by his peers. “Fame begot me Envie, and secret Enemies, which mightily increased when my Father added to me the knowledge of Deliveries, and Cures of Women,” he recalled in a short biographical sketch quoted in James H. Aveling's 1882 book The Chamberlens and the Midwifery Forceps: Memorials of the Family and an Essay on the Invention of the Instrument.
Chamberlen also promoted regular baths as a remedy to prevent the spread of contagion. In 1649 the House of Lords granted his petition regarding a new type of public bathhouse regulated by local authority. While the elite and merchant classes could afford special bathing tubs and homes with enough space to ensure privacy—in addition to access to plentiful water and the household servants required to carry and heat the bathwater—the urban poor relied on bathhouses, which had a reputation for licentiousness. “They are no foolish Novelties,” he commented about gender-segregated bathhouses as a public health benefit, according to Aveling in The Chamberlens and the Midwifery Forceps. “They are not confined to hot or cold Countries, since they abound both in Turkie, Persia, Germany, Hungary, Denmark, Swedeland, Poland, and Moscovia, whose strong, great-bodied, healthfull people, beautifull children, and easie births, give no small testimony to the use of Bathes.”
Ultimately, Chamberlen's skill as a “man-midwife” and an astute general-practitioner physician might be deduced from the fact that he fathered 18 children who survived infancy and childhood. In the late 1630s, he bought Woodham Mortimer Hall in Essex, a stately manor home. His first wife, Jane Myddelton, was the daughter of a well-regarded mine owner and civil engineer who had been elevated to a baronetcy by King James I. Peter and Jane became parents to 13 children before her death, and his second marriage to Ann Harrison yielded another five children. When he died at Woodham Mortimer Hall on December 22, 1683, the 82-year-old Chamberlen was grandfather to an astonishing 65 descendants.
One of those grandchildren was the obstetrician Middleton Walker of Dublin, Ireland, who carried on the family tradition until his death in 1732. A year later, the first full description of the Chamberlen forceps appeared in a British medical text. Forceps came into wider use in the 1750s through the work of Scottish obstetrician William Smellie, who made slight improvements upon the original Chamberlen design. In a remarkable postscript, Woodham Manor was sold to a new family in 1715. In 1813, a secret compartment in a loft space was unearthed, revealing a box containing the original Chamberlen forceps. The instrument was given to the Royal Society of Medicine for its surgical-display museum exhibit.
Aveling, James Hobson, The Chamberlens and the Midwifery Forceps: Memorials of the Family and an Essay on the Invention of the Instrument, J. & A. Churchill, 1882.
Jordan, W.K., Philanthropy in England: 1480–1660, Volume 1: A Study of the Changing Patterns of English Social Aspirations, Routledge, 1959.
Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal and Neonatal Edition, November 1999, Peter M. Dunn, “The Chamberlen Family (1560–1728) and Obstetric Forceps,” pp. 232-235.
New Yorker, October 9, 2006, Atul Gawande, “The Score,” p. 59.□