The Chamberlen family (1569-1792) migrated to England in the mid-16th century to escape the religious persecution in Catholic France. Many of the family were surgeons, physicians, accoucheurs (midwives) and apothecaries and through marriage were closely related to the De Laune family, who were similar Huguenot refugees.
Peter Chamberlen was born in 1572 in Paris, son of William Chamberlen and Genevieve Vingnon. Once in England and at the age of 25 he married Sarah de Laune, herself the daughter of a family who counted clergymen, physicians and apothecaries among their number. They went on to have ten children – Anne Chamberlen, Peter Chamberlen and 8 others. Son Peter was born on the 8 May 1601 in the Parish of St. Anne, Blackfriars, London and was brought up surrounded by medical practice and religious study. It was not surprising that after completing his early schooling at Merchant Taylor’s School, Chamberlen proceeded to Emmanuel College Cambridge, a well-known Puritan institution, followed by medical training at two of Europe’s most renowned universities, Heidelberg and Padua, and was then incorporated at Oxford and Cambridge. Thus, at 18 years-of-age, Peter Chamberlen was prepared for the commencement of his medical career. He is credited with the invention of the obstetric forceps. These were kept as a lucrative secret, as was the custom of the time and he became known as the ‘woman’s doctor’.
He married Jane Middleton, his first wife, who was the eldest daughter of Sir Hugh Middleton a prominent citizen and royal goldsmith who had King James I as a partner in a business venture. Chamberlen’s plan was to utilise every opportunity, including the minting of coins for personal advantage but also to assist the poor. Peter and Jane Chamberlen were well placed in London society and their privileged upbringing had a profound impact on his success and that of his immediate family. His career developed rapidly and he was eventually elected as a fellow of the College of Physicians in 1628. Although Peter Chamberlen held a prominent position at Court as a physician, his work was often among the poor where he was able to observe their plight.
He was much in demand by the aristocracy because of his success with difficult midwifery cases. In 1634 he attempted to form an association of midwives in the City of London. He claimed that it was his purpose to slow the infant mortality rate by educating the midwives, but the midwives themselves considered it an attempt to control their activities for his own financial advantage, and enlisted the help of the College of Physicians to stop his training programme. He was again in conflict with the College of Physicians in 1648 over a plan to introduce public baths to foster health and stem disease throughout the Kingdom.
Aged 47 he allied himself with the Anabaptists and was baptised as an adult, appreciating their attempts to address the social problems of the time. He became involved with the radical ‘Fifth Monarchy’ movement, making his religious inclinations and political leanings apparent. His reputation as a political agitator can be clearly seen in his alliance with James Harrington, a political theorist who promoted a republican system of government during the interregnum. During this period between Kings, Peter Chamberlen was a leader of an Anabaptist church.
Soon after his uncle (known as Peter Chamberlen the Elder) died in 1631 he was appointed as Physician Extraordinary to the King (a position with no paid salary). He was the physician midwife at the birth of Charles II.
Although many people branded him as crazy because of his many tracts on religious and political themes, the authorities considered him a dedicated and skilled interventionist in childbirth.
Peter Chamberlen and his wife produced three surviving sons. Hugh, the eldest, Paul the second born and John the fourth son. Of the three, Hugh Chamberlen, born c.1630 was undoubtedly the most celebrated in history. His career was colourful. It is not known where he completed his medical training although it is very likely it was in France. Hugh inherited many of his father’s entrepreneurial skills and became a renowned physician and accoucheur and, like his father, took an active interest in politics and social issues, succeeding his father as Court Physician.
Dr Peter Chamberlen was genuine in his attempts to stem infant mortality, but because of his uncompromising approach and foreign heritage he failed to gather the necessary support from among his peers. However, he assisted the development of obstetrics in England by agitating for reform and providing printed materials to be used by midwives. He died aged 81-82 in his house – the Hall at Woodham Mortimer, Essex and is buried in the nearby St Margaret’s Churchyard where there is a rather interesting inscribed tomb.
In 1843 four pairs of forceps were discovered hidden beneath a trapdoor in an attic room of the Hall. It is likely these had been secreted there by Peter’s widow.Peter’s tomb was restored by the Royal College of Surgeons and the forceps are now in the museum of The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The tomb is ornate but gruesomely decorated and on one side are details of his life and on the other are verses which he composed especially for this purpose. It stands between the church and the gate leading to his former home. Peter’s surviving son, (by his second wife) Hope Chamberlen inherited the Hall, but sold it.
The minutes of the Lothbury Square Church
The records of the Royal College of Physicians.
A thesis by Desmond Potts of the University of Newcastle, Australia
The Journal of Medical Biography