Peter Chamberlen

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P. Chamberlen. Line engraving by T. Trotter, 1794.
Obstetrical Forceps, by Smellie (1792)

Pierre (Peter) Chamberlen was the name of two brothers, the sons of Guillaume (William) Chamberlen (c. 1540 – 1596), a Huguenot surgeon who fled from Paris to England in 1569. They are famous for inventing the modern use of obstetrical forceps. It remained a family secret for nearly two centuries and through four generations of accoucheur.

Peter the Elder[edit]

Peter the Elder lived from 1560 to 1631. He became surgeon to Queen Anne (wife of James I) and accoucheur to Queen Henrietta Maria (Charles I's queen) in London. Admitted to the College of Barber-Surgeons in 1598, he came into serious conflict with the College for prescribing medicines contrary to their rules. 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. He was appointed surgeon to Queen Anne in 1614 and was present at the birth of Charles II in 1630. His wife, Anne Harris, whom he married in London in 1584, predeceased him, as did his son David (1590–1618) who died in the East Indies while serving as a ship's surgeon on the Royal James. His daughter Esther married Thomas Cargill, an Aberdeen merchant; she and her children are all named in his will but as Chamberlen's younger son, William (1598 -) is not mentioned, it most likely he too predeceased his father.[1]

Peter the Younger[edit]

Peter the Younger lived from 1572 to 1626 and also worked as surgeon and obstetrician. He married Sara DeLaune, the daughter of William DeLaune, a fellow Huguenot physician and minister, who had fled from France to England in the wake of the St Bartholomew Day massacre in 1572, and the sister of Gideon DeLaune, apothecary to Queen Anne and a founding benefactor of the Society of Apothecaries. They had eight children, among them Dr. Peter Chamberlen(1601–1683), also a physician and obstetrician.

Peter the Elder is believed to be the inventor of the forceps. The brothers went to great length to keep the secret. When they arrived at the home of a woman in labour, two people had to carry a massive box with gilded carvings into the house. The pregnant patient was blindfolded so as not to reveal the secret, all the others had to leave the room. Then the operator went to work. The people outside heard screams, bells, and other strange noises until the cry of the baby indicated another successful delivery.

Woodham Mortimer Hall, home of the Chamberlen family

The two families lived in London, Peter the Elder in the wealthy Parish of St Dionys Backchurch, and Peter the Younger in the Liberty of Blackfriars, where the church of St Ann Blackfriars had many Huguenot parishioners. As they became wealthy and established in English life, Peter the Elder acquired property in Kent, Downe, where Peter the Younger died, Croydon, Keston and Farnborough. All of this passed to his grandson, Thomas Cargill and it was Dr Peter Chamberlen who later acquired Woodham Mortimer Hall, a 17th-century gabled house in Essex which became the family home. A blue plaque fixed to the hall notes them as pioneering obstetricians. The hall passed out of the Chamberlen family in 1715 when the family home was sold. Dr Peter Chamberlen's own set of forceps were found in 1813 under a trap door in the loft of the hall and given to the Medical and Chirurgical Society which passed them to the Royal Society of Medicine in 1818.[2]

Later Chamberlens[edit]

  • Dr. Peter Chamberlen, also known as Peter the Third, born in 1601, the eldest son of Peter the Younger, had a good medical education and continued the tradition. He attended the birth of the future King Charles II by Queen Henrietta Maria. His attempt to create a Corporation of Midwives was opposed by the College of Physicians. He was a noted medical doctor, public health advocate, and the pastor of Millyard Seventh Day Baptist Church in London (founded in 1607, the oldest Baptist Church worldwide still in activity).[3] Frustrated by continuing conflict with the Royal College of Surgeons, and increasingly eccentric, he retired to Essex in 1652 for the remaining years of the Commonwealth. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he reminded Charles II that he was the only surviving Physician to their Majesties from before the Commonwealth and 1661 was reappointed Physician-in-Ordinary to the King and subsequently attended Queen Catherine. He died in 1683.
  • His eldest son, Hugh Chamberlen the elder (1634 -after 1720), also practiced obstetrics using the secret forceps. In 1670, he travelled to France and tried to sell the secret to the French government. François Mauriceau gave him a test,- to deliver a 38-year-old dwarf with a grossly malformed pelvis who was in obstructed labor. He failed in this impossible task and returned to England. Hugh Chamberlen later went to the Netherlands and sold his secret to Roger Roonhuysen. The secret was sold further by the Medico-Pharmaceutical College of Amsterdam to selected physicians. After a couple of years somebody made the secret public, but only one blade of the forceps had been revealed. Hugh the Elder eventually moved to Scotland. There, in 1694, he published a book advocating health insurance. Another son, Paul, (1635–1717), although well-regarded in his time by both colleagues and patients, is remembered more for the highly profitable sales of his "anodyne necklace" which he claimed could assist pregnant women to experience both a healthy pregnancy and an easier labour, and ward off the dangers of teething when worn by the child.
  • Hugh Chamberlen the Younger (1664–1728) became a successful and fashionable accoucheur and physician, remembered today by a large and very ornate memorial in Westminster Abbey, erected by the elderly Dowager Duchess of Buckingham and her son in grateful thanks for saving the young Duke's life. Together with his brother, John, and two cousins (sons of his aunt, Elizabeth Chamberlen), he was the last generation of the family to practice the secret use of the forceps. Toward the end of his life the design and use of the instrument entered the public domain. The first illustration of the forceps was published by Edward Hody in 1734.


  1. ^ Russell, Lesley. An Asclepiad family − The Chamberlens and DeLaunes, 1569–1792: Five generations of surgeons, physicians, accoucheurs and apothecaries. Journal of Medical Biography. Sage Publications. Prepublished Online 26 June 2014
  2. ^ Christie, Damian (September 2004). "The Surgeon returns to Melbourne; Chamberlen's forceps find a home at the College" (PDF). O&G. Victoria, Australia: The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. 6 (3): 246–247. Retrieved 16 November 2008. 
  3. ^ Katz, David S. (1988) Sabbath and sectarianism in seventeenth-century England. Leiden, Netherlands. Brill. 224 pages, pp. 48–89
  • Williams Obstetrics, 14th edition. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, NY, 1971, pages 1116–8.

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