15 Things To Know About The History Of Forceps And Childbirth

It’s amazing the amount of medical knowledge we know nowadays. Due to a great deal of research conducted throughout the ages, we now know more than ever before, but remarkably, considering how much we know, in comparison to other areas of science, the whole pregnancy and birthing process is still a grey area, although it’s one of the most researched areas of science. But having said that, what we do know is that over the years, there have been some tremendous scientific advances in this field, things to help both mother and baby during their initial interactions together in this life. These advances encompass plenty of things, including technological advances – various instruments and machinery, conceptions to make delivering the baby that much easier.

Those of you who have gone through childbirth will know that it’s an incredibly painful experience. You would have experienced at least some level of pain, but hopefully you managed to sail through things without much trouble, without any complications arising. Many women and babies aren’t so lucky. The birthing procedure is fraught with dangers and complications, which is why when people say that giving birth and being born is a miracle, it certainly is just that. Sometimes, unfortunately, complications can have a seriously bad outcome, but thankfully, due to inventions and advances in the design of medical equipment, a lot of moms and babies make it. The forceps – what may seem like a relatively innocuous piece of kit – are one of these medical instruments. Their invention and use through the ages has a pretty interesting history too. Here it is – 15 things to know about the history of forceps use in childbirth.

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15 It’s One Of The Greatest Inventions In Medical Science


Firstly, I’ve got to start off by saying just how great forceps are, how they’ve helped so many women and babies during obstructed labors. The forceps are undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions of all time in medical science, which may seem very weird considering it looks like such a simple piece of equipment. But sometimes simple is best – the solutions to problems are often the simplest of things – and the prestigious French-English family, the Chamberlens, recognized that.

Before the 1600s, obstructed labor was a huge problem. Many women would get complications due to obstructed labor, and a lot of babies died because physicians just didn’t have any suitable means of dealing with such a problem. It was therefore a major cause of death for babies, and it was even deemed to be an “expected tragedy” which is just truly horrific to think of. But after the invention and the eventual use of the forceps, the survival rates of both moms and their babies started increasing.

14 The Techniques Originate From London

Ok, so who was it that first invented and began using forceps and in which country was it invented in? The forceps were invented by a man called William Chamberlen. He was the eldest son of the Chamberlen clan, a prestigious family that had made names for themselves as the best surgeons around. However, there’s dispute as to which member of the Chamberlen family invented forceps. Some say it was William, however quite a few deem Peter Chamberlen to be the inventor – whoever it was we’ll never know for sure. The family of surgeons originated from France, but relocated to the UK, moving to Southampton before settling in London.

Since they’re a family of surgeons, they probably recognized the need for a more efficient way of getting the baby out during obstructive childbirths. Before the invention, many babies wouldn’t survive, because instruments such as hooks were used, which understandably ended up maiming and killing lots of babies.

13 Man-Midwifery


Back in the late 16th century, women weren’t really involved in the medical professions. It was the men who were physicians, and the Chamberlen’s were perhaps the best of them all. As a family of surgeons, they rose to prominence and essentially carved out a niche for themselves in the profession of midwifery, something that today is predominantly done by women. But back then, female midwives were pretty common place, and they began to get really peeved off with all these men who began training as midwives and started taking over the profession. But without more and more men getting into midwifery, it’s unlikely the Chamberlen’s would have ever thought of the need to have something to help with obstructive births and would have ever had invented the forceps. But eventually, throughout Europe, laws began to be put in place to protect female midwives, their roles in the profession, and the modesty of women when giving birth.

12 Initially Only The Rich And Aristocratic Saw Any Benefit


I mentioned in the previous entry that the Chamberlen family of surgeons carved out a niche for themselves in their medical profession in London. That’s because they were male midwives – although as I’ve mentioned, male-midwifery was beginning to get increasingly popular during those times – but also because of their client base, and they were very good – the best in England – midwives too. They didn’t just deliver babies for any old Tom Dick and Harry – the so-called commoners just weren’t on their radar. No, they only helped the privileged, those rich folks who could afford their services. They even worked for royalty. The wealthy people of London, the aristocrats, could call upon their services, and it’s while being male midwives for these affluent people, that they brought out the forceps. That’s another reason they were so good as midwives, because they knew something and had invented something other midwives didn’t have a clue about – forceps – allowing them to deliver babies safely.

11 The Initial Crude Invention

As with most inventions, especially those that were invented centuries ago, the forceps we use today, although it may look similar, it has come on leaps and bounds since it first started to be used by the Chamberlen family those many moons ago. Back then, understandably since it had just been invented, the whole design of the forceps was very simple. The basic design though, was all that was needed, because it was a massive improvement on what was being done before – far better than using hooks and other such medical instruments to aid difficult deliveries.

The two branches of the forceps were curved, making grabbing the baby’s head and manoeuvring things around a whole lot easier and safer. Initially the whole concept of the design was based around the instrument used to remove stones from the bladder, and it was a very crude invention, some have even used the term “barbaric,” but there’s no doubting it’s use and place in midwifery.

10 Only Used In Difficult Childbirths

Forceps deliveries are only carried out, back then when they were first invented, and today, during difficult childbirths, usually when there’s some sort of obstruction, making vaginal childbirth impossible without some kind of assistance. When labor isn’t progressing, if the baby’s the wrong way, if there are health concerns for you or your baby, then out come the forceps, although today, there’s another technique that’s widely used instead of forceps delivery, ventouse, vacuum-assisted vaginal delivery, which basically sucks the baby out using a vacuum device and suction power. A lot of people deem both to be pretty horrible, but if the baby needs assistance getting out of the birth canal, these are the only two options available, and if these fail, a C-section would be the next procedure. Of course, back then when forceps were invented, there was no vacuuming, so forceps were used in pretty much every difficult childbirth where there was an obstruction.

9 The Instrument Was Kept A Secret

The Chamberlen’s were shrewd characters. They knew they had invented something special, were well aware how their invention had changed the course of medical science. It was essentially a life-saving tool, and not one they were about to share with anybody. Today, if an invention like that was made, it’d start being rolled out to surgeries around the world right away. But it was a different time back then, and rather than shouting about their invention from the rooftops, the Chamberlens kept the forceps a secret and went to great lengths to keep it that way. I’ve mentioned they were only midwives to the rich and the aristocratic folk, but still, the Chamberlens didn’t divulge their secret to them, even when using the forceps to assist with childbirth. They were so secretive that they carried the forceps into delivery rooms in a lined box, only got them out if needed and when everyone – except the expectant mom of course – was out of the room, and even then, they only used them once the mother was blindfolded. They managed to keep their invention a secret, remarkably for 150 years in this manner, with their family members who also became male midwives, carrying on these crude delivery room traditions, all in the interest of secrecy.

8 The Secret Was Sold


It’s amazing that the Chamberlen family managed to keep the forceps a secret for about 150 years, but eventually they felt it was time - it took long enough! – for the rest of the medical profession to know about their life-saving piece of kit. It’s thought that they sold it – one of the grandnephews of the Chamberlens who invented it – sold it to Dutch obstetricians at the beginning of the 18th century.

They had tried to sell it before though, in Paris, but things didn’t go according to plan. They demonstrated its use to their prospective buyers, but it’s safe to say that the demonstration was an abject failure, leaving François Mauriceau – a French obstetrician who was present at the demonstration – thinking the invention was just a piece of junk. During the demonstration with the forceps, a mom and her child were killed – not the best way to bring forceps to the attention of the world.

7 Was Modified Several Times


As with any invention, the forceps were modified a number of times through the ages, from that initial crude invention created by the Chamberlens, to the forceps that are in use today. Look at them, compare the designs, and you may not notice a whole lot of difference. The concept and the core of the design has remained the same, but aside from that, there’ve been plenty of small tweaks and adaptations to make it that much more functional, easier to use, and safer for mom and child.

The differences mainly lie in the angle of the forceps, their length, and slight differences in the shape of the forceps. It’s so the handles, can be used in different types of obstructive birthing procedures, can go further in reaching high into the pelvis, grab the baby’s head at a slightly different angle if needed, and support baby’s head that may be a tad rounder.

6 It Was Illegal In Certain Places


Not everyone was thrilled with the invention of the forceps. Its use was actually illegal for a long time in certain regions around Europe, not because that initial demonstration during which both mom and baby were killed, went horribly wrong, but because the medical profession as a whole – the use of tools and equipment in medical practices especially – was frowned upon, and in some cases, was actually illegal. For the Chamberlens, being male midwives made things a tad easier for them, but female midwives couldn’t use such instruments like the forceps. That’s because women were deemed to be stupid, incapable of learning how to use new equipment, but also, they were thought of as witches and healers. Consequently, tons of women who were in such professions and used obstetric tools, around Europe, and the world for that matter, were burned and executed for witchcraft.

16th-century Venice is a place where the use of forceps and a lot of obstetric tools was illegal. It was deemed that using them meant witchcraft, and that they were interfering with god, god’s will, so the use of forceps was prohibited.

5 Were A Common Tool In The Victorian Age


The Victorian era refers to the period during which Queen Victoria ruled over England. Her reign was from 1837, to the time of her death in 1901. It was an unusually long reign for a monarch of those times, but it was one that marked a change in Britain’s history, a great period of transition for the United Kingdom. Peace and prosperity was brought to the UK under Victoria’s rule, and she was also very keen in Britain being at the centre of scientific excellence. She pushed scientists to come up with new inventions, new procedures, and just be at the centre for all things science. It was during this time, during her rule, that forceps became getting used ever more frequently. They were no longer a secret, no longer used just for the rich and privileged, but were used when needed during all births. Along with forceps, chloroform also became a common tool of labor, so we can thank the Victorian age for the fact that forceps are in every midwife’s kitbag today.

4 It’s Use Is In Decline


Over the years, the use of forceps in childbirth has gradually declined, so that now, in today’s day and age, it’s hardly every used – especially in western countries – as a method to assist in obstructive labors. Think about it for a sec – they’re essentially tongs that are being used to pull out a baby – it’s not really a pleasant thought, not something moms want to subject their babies to. As was inevitable, different methods have been created, different techniques have been developed to help get babies out during obstructive labors, and these are now the most commonly used methods. A lot of doctors are now no longer even trained in the use of forceps, and consequently, it’s become something that’s only rarely used.

The reason for this is that C-sections can now be performed safely, ventouse has been developed and is the preferred procedure, so the use of forceps is gradually beginning to die out in midwifery.

3 The Technique


If using them at all, forceps can only be used in certain circumstances; there are certain conditions for their use – they can’t be used in any scenario where there’s an obstruction.

The first thing that must have happened before a doctor or midwife can even consider using forceps, is that the cervix must be fully dilated to the point where the membranes have been ruptured. The bladder also needs to be empty, but this can be done if needs be, with a catheter.

There are four different types of techniques; Outlet, low, midforceps and high forceps delivery. The high forceps delivery is hardly ever used in today’s day and age. Midforceps delivery can only take place when the fetal head is in a longitudinal position, has entered the pelvis first. For low forceps delivery there are no restrictions, no conditions, but outlet forceps delivery is the most commonly used delivery method. The fetal head needs to be visible for doctors to consider using this method, but all of these techniques – the use of forceps in general – is a dying art form.

2 Maternal Complications

Forceps were invented by the Chamberlens to make obstructive labors safer for mom and child. Beforehand, the instruments used were just barbaric, but in those days, that’s all they had. Of course, forceps were always going to be safer than the hooks that were used, but it doesn’t mean there’re never going to be any complications. There are a number of complications that could occur to the baby, but also to the mom.

As with sticking any instrument in the birth canal, there is high chance of there being some tears, some lacerations. Although forceps have been developed in a such a way so that their design appears to be relatively safe, because of the other things that are happening during birth, their use increases the likelihood of there being tears.

Pelvic incontinence is also a complication, but aside from these potential complications, there is of course, more risk to the baby.

1 Fetal Complications

Think about what’s essentially being done with the use of forceps and you’ll be able to appreciate that there’s a lot that can go wrong. Babies are really delicate, brittle creatures, and so can easily suffer complications when being pulled out with forceps.

In severe cases, hemorrhages could occur to the baby’s skull, due to the pressure put on the skull. This usually happens – either due to the doctor’s medical negligence – or because the baby’s moving around a lot and is twisting and turning. A more common complication, are cuts and bruises, again because the baby may begin to squirm. Occasionally there could be injuries affecting the facial nerve. Like I said, babies are delicate creatures, so these nerve injuries could be temporary, or they could after that individual for life. It happened to world-famous actor, Sylvester Stallone; Sly’s mom had a complicated labor, and so two pairs of forceps had to be used, but as a result of misuse, a nerve was severed, and consequently part of Sly’s face is paralyzed, as it has been his whole life, hence he has slightly slurred speech.

Sources: StudentMidwife.net


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