Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Chamberlen, Peter (1601-1683)

CHAMBERLEN, PETER, M.D. (1601–1683), physician, was son of Peter Chamberlen the younger [q. v.], a London barber-surgeon, and great-grandson of Chamberlen, a French protestant, who settled in England in the reign of Elizabeth. The invention of the short forceps has been attributed to him, but a passage (p. lviii) in Smellie's ‘Treatise of Midwifery’ (London, 1752) shows that in the early part of the last century it was Chamberlen's grandfather who was considered the inventor. As the history of this invention is unknown and as none of the Chamberlens ever showed much scientic spirit, it may fairly be doubted whether the family is to be credited with any invention at all, and from the purely commercial spirit in which they treated their knowledge, it is possible that it was originally acquired by purchase from some obscure and forgotten practitioner. The invention consisted in fashioning an instrument of two distinct blades which, when placed together, held the fœtal head as between two hands, but which could be put into position sesprately, could then be interlocked at the handle end of the blades, and used together as an instrument of traction. All previous instruments had a fixed lock or were single levers, and could be useful in very few cases of difficulty, while the Chamberlens' forceps was applicable in many cases and without the use of any dangerous force. Their shape was obviously suggested by that of the human hand slightly flexed. some of the old instruments had approached the same shape and it is fair to conjecture that it was while using such a lever in his right hand aided by his left hand in apposition, that the inventor of the forceps hit upon his happly idea. Whoever was the inventor, the know edge was confined to the Chamberlen family, and Peter Chamberlen's prosperity was due to it. He was born 8 May 1601, and was 'educated at Merchant Taylors’ School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He took the degree of M.D. at Padua nb 1619, and was afterwards incoporated at Oxford and at Cambridge. In 1628 he was admitted a fellow of the College of Physicians (Munk, Coll. of Plys. 1878, i. 194). He lectured on anatomy to the barber-surgeons, end was made physician extraordinary to the king. In the College of Physicians he advocated, in 1634, the incorporation of midwives, a project which, after much controversy, came to nothing. fended his conduct in a pamphlet called ‘A Voice in Rhama, or the Cry of the Women and Children, echoed forth in the compassions of Peter Chamberlen’ (London, 1647). It is an abusive production, resembling in style some of the vernacular writings of the Elizabethan surgeons, and shows that Chamberlen was not at home in the College of Physicians. He can find no better excuse for keeping secret knowledge, capable of saving hundreds of lives if widely known, than that ‘the draper is not bound to find cloth for all the naked because he hath enough in his shop, nor yet to afford it at the buyer's price.’ His next scheme, for his life was one long succession of schemes, was to institute a system of hydro-therapeutics, and he petitioned parliament (1648) to consider the question, especially as a preventive of plague. The College of Physicians, to whom the matter was referred, replied that all baths were useful in treatment, but that if public baths, as proposed by Chamberlen, were erected, the house would have to draw up stringent regulations for their use. Chamberlen, in reply, wrote ‘A Vindication of Public Artificial Baths’ (London, 1648), and, amidst other abuse, suggested that the college was made up of men opposed to puritan ideas. The breach grew wider and wider between Chamberlen and the other fellows, he ceased to attend, and in 1649 was dismissed from his fellowship. He now published a scheme of politics, a scheme for propelling carriages by wind, and several theological schemes, and became prominent at a conventicle in Lothbury. He was first an independent and next an anabaptist, but in 1660 joined in the general acclamation at the restoration of monarchy, and became physician to the king. He lived near St. Stephen's Church in Coleman Street, and from time to time published theological pamphlets. A list of them may be found in Dr. Aveling's ‘The Chamberlens’ (p. 81); their ideas are confused, and they are full of phrases like those of his famous neighbour, Cowley's ‘Cutter.’ Chamberlen frequently visited Holland, and in England petitioned for monopolies of inventions, of which he had learnt the beginnings from the Dutch. He obtained in 1672 a patent for all benefits arising from a new way of writing and printing true English; and somewhat later wrote to defend himself from charges of insanity and of Judaism. He so constantly put forward his seniority as a doctor and his age as claims to respect, that it is clear that even these just reasons failed to obtain him the veneration which nothing else in his way of life could claim. He died, 22 Dec. 1683, at Woodham Mortimer Hall in Essex, and has an altar tomb in the churchyard of the parish. He was twice married, and had in all fourteen sons, of whom Hugh the elder and Paul are separately noticed, and four daughters, sixty-five grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren. His monument, which states the number of his descendants and his dignities, followed by a long epitaph in English verse, was erected by Hope, the only surviving child of his second wife. In 1818 several forceps and other midwifery instruments were discovered in Woodham Mortimer Hall, in an old chest, concealed beneath the floor. The instruments are to be seen at 53 Berners Street, London, and are fully described in the Medico-Chirurgical Society's ‘Transactions,’ vol. xxvii. They show that the Chamberlens tried to improve their instruments, as there are four varieties of the short forceps.

[Dr. J. H. Aveling's The Chamberlens, London, 1882; Munk's Coll. of Phys. 1878, i.; Original Minute Book of Barbers' Company, MS.]

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