Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Object 6: Forceps

What: Public Lecture, on History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects 

When: Tuesday 7th June, 6:15 – 7:15pm, following by wine reception***

Where: Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, Michael Sadler Building


What is the history and philosophy of science? What can it tell us about the way we see ourselves and the world around us? How can objects help us to understand what science is, and has been in the past?

Join Louise Jennkins and Adrian Wilson for Lecture 6 where, fittingly, they’ll be talking about “Midwifery Forceps: the known and unknown history of childbirth”.



From 5:00-6:00pm, early editions of several books mentioned in the series so far will be on display for public viewing in the Special Collections, Brotherton Library.



Lecture Video:

Below is a blog post about lecture 6 written by MA Student Caz Avery

HPS in 20 Objects, Lecture 6: Midwifery Forceps

The 6th HPS in 20 Objects lecture too place on the 7th of June, it focused on the use of instruments in midwifery – when it began and the effects it had on the traditional structures of childbirth. The lecture was given by Dr Adrian Wilson and PhD student, and trained midwife, Louise Jenkins.

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Picture: Louise Jenkins explaining different complications and obstructions which can occur during labour and giving birth.

The lecture began with an outline of the possible complications which can occur during birth, it was emphasised that childbirth is generally very safe. The three main complications discussed were Transverse presentation, Breach presentation, and general head obstructions. Transverse presentation is when the baby is lying horizontally rather than vertically and it occurs in roughly 1% of all births, it is not possible to give birth with the baby in this position. In Breach presentation, which occurs in roughly 4% of all births, the baby is lying with its feet (rather than the head) towards the pelvis, in these deliveries the baby will typically come out presenting their feet or bottom first. Finally, there was a discussion of general head obstructions, these also occur in roughly 4% of all births. Head obstructions can occur for any number of reasons: one of the most common was rickets which causes the mother to have a pelvic deformation making natural childbirth almost impossible. So how were these births dealt with during the 1700s?

In the 17th century, normal births were attended by midwives only – men were completely excluded from the birth process. A woman would lie in a darkened room with the midwife and her Gossips (a corruption of the word ‘God-Sibs’ or God-Siblings) her closest group of female friends and family. On the rare occasion that there was an obstruction a doctor would need to be called. If the baby could not leave the mothers body, then it was simply a matter of time until both child and mother died. The doctor would use a crochet or sharp hook to remove the (already dead) child from the mother in an attempt to save her life. Doctors did not deliver live babies.

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Picture: A range of midwifery forceps, showing their development.

However, this began to change due to the use of midwifery forceps. The forceps are believed to have been created by the Chamberlen family, who kept them a family secret, passing them down the family line and very occasionally selling them to private physicians for a high fee. The forceps are one of the most well-known instrument for labour intervention, a version of them is still used to this day. Forceps require a certain amount of training in order to use them well, there is a level of skill involved which cannot be learnt simply through reading about them.

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Picture: Dr Wilson attempting to use the forceps on a model, emphasising how difficult they were to use.

There were two other instruments which appeared at around the same time as the forceps: the Vectis – similar to the forceps but with only one blade, and the Fillet – a strap of material (usually leather or silk) which was looped around the child in order to pull it out. Neither was as successful as the forceps, the Fillet especially required a large amount of skill to use and was dropped from use fairly early on.

The lecture ended with three concluding questions:
– How did the forceps impact the trend of male midwifery? They allowed a man to deliver a live child, something previously only done my midwives. However, forceps cannot be the sole cause, as male practitioners reported not using instruments very often.
– Which instrument was best? This seems to be a rather modern question; at the time it is likely that the decision of which instrument to use would be situational.
– What caused the invention of the forceps? They did not appear in any other countries, nor did any other instruments, so what were the factors that caused the Chamberlen family to create them? Unfortunately, this is currently unknown. It is a point of on-going research.


The Lecture series is now taking a break for the summer, it will restart at the beginning of the next academic year.

*All picture credit goes to Polina Merkulova and Emily Herring.


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