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Smellie-type obstetrical forceps, United Kingdom, 1740-1760

William Smellie (1697-1763) was a Scottish man-midwife who invented these forceps and helped develop obstetrics. The steel blades are covered with leather. They were greased with hog’s lard so the obstetrical forceps could be inserted into the body easily. Obstetrical forceps gripped a baby’s head during difficult labours to help delivery. The leather also prevented the alarming sound of metal clacking together. Smellie suggested changing the leather after use to prevent venereal diseases spreading. Ignoring this advice meant they were impossible to clean properly and the leather became a haven for germs. Puerperal fever, a form of septicaemia, was an often fatal infection contracted by birthing women, so using these forceps was potentially dangerous.

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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.