Parts of the Dorman Museum have had a change. The 20th Century Woman gallery has made way for exciting new displays, but this has given us the chance to explore the objects previously on display and look at the stories they tell.
The 20th Century Woman Gallery celebrated women who lived through the turbulent 20th century, from the First and Second World Wars, to the technological advances of the 1980s/90s, it told many stories of how women’s lives have changed during this period.
Here we are shining a light on one of the objects from this gallery, forceps! Forceps have played a huge part in the lives of women’s reproductive health and they have a surprisingly old history.
These are the forceps we looked at in the Dorman Museum and they are a standard design dating to the 1940s – 1960s. Today forceps look pretty much the same. But who invented them, and have they always been made of metal?
Forceps have been around since the 1600s and an early pioneer in the use of forceps was William Smellie, a Scottish born male midwife who made greats strides in obstetrics, the medical term for doctors who specialist in looking after pregnancy and women’s reproductive health, by developing his own forceps.
These were much like the ones pictured above except Smellie’s forceps were covered in leather to stop the metal from clinking. He designed the leather to be changeable for hygiene reasons, but this was very rarely done leading to deadly infections. Other early designs around the same time were made from wood and people before the 1800s didn’t understand germs or how infections were caused.
The invention of the forceps coincided with a dramatic rise in rickets, a disease that causes the developing bones to bow and grown deformed due to a lack of vitamin D. Many women developed a disformed pelvic bone, making birth incredibly difficult and in some cases impossible. Being able to intervene in these labours with forceps was life saving for many mothers and their babies.
The forceps themselves would be inserted one by one to from a grip around the baby’s head. They could then be used to help pull baby out when the mother has contractions. The shape and design of these forceps hasn’t changed since Smellie used them. They remain an important part of an obstetrician’s tool kit to this day and have saved the lives of countless women over centuries.
William Smellie (1697-1763): A Sett of Anatomical Tables with Explanations and an Abridgement of the Practice of Midwifery, 1754.