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Smellie-type obstetrical forceps, England, 1701-1800

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Can a doctor’s best intentions sometimes have unforeseen consequences? By attempting to ease a patient’s distress might they actually be exposing them to other dangers? These are obstetrical forceps dating from the mid 1800s, made to a design inspired by the great pioneer of obstetrics, William Smellie. They were intended to grasp the head of a baby and help ease it out during a difficult birth. But why are they covered in leather? Smellie used leather for good reasons. By covering the steel instrument he created a softer surface which could lesson the chance of physical damage to both mother and child. The leather also created good contact with the baby’s head – even after lubricating them with ‘hog’s lard’ prior to use, as Smellie suggested. These forceps were also less alarming to birthing women. Naturally wary of the new-fangled instruments, they were said to be terrified by the clanking sounds of interlocking metal. So where’s the problem? Although Smellie originally suggested changing the leather after each use, this was not always done and, as in this design, simply not practical. As one of his contemporary rivals pointed out “some part of the blood and waters must be sucked up by the leather, so that it gets betwixt it and the steel work and will corrupt and stink”. Before the general acceptance of the germ theory of disease from the 1870s, users of such forceps unknowingly created a reservoir of germs. In trying to lessen the obvious physical dangers of a forceps delivery, a mother’s life could inadvertently be put in even greater peril.

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Glossary: obstetrics

A branch of medicine dealing with the care of women. This care occurs during pregnancy, childbirth, and the period of recovery from childbirth.

Glossary: obstetrical forceps

An instrument used to assist the delivery of a foetus, usually during a birth where complications have developed. Numerous variations have been developed over time. The fundamental design has two separate looped blades with handles. These interlock to form a grasping instrument.