Forceps remain a common obstetrical instrument today, but were in competition for acceptance with the vectis throughout the eighteenth century. Though designs varied, the main difference between the instruments was that the forceps had two branches or blades that were positioned around the head of the foetus, where the vectis had one. The vectis was used much like the forceps to alter the position of the baby’s head in the birth canal and could add traction to ease the baby out.
Initially, the development of these instruments was kept secret by their developers, the Chamberlen family. Arriving in Britain as French Huguenot refugees, the family were soon successful and sought after for their ability to aid difficult births, including by members of the royal family. To keep their secret, they kept their instruments in an ornate box, barred all from the room, and blindfolded the parturient woman. The Chamberlen family are typically credited with inventing the forceps, but may have also developed the vectis.
This vectis was made between 1820 and 1840 by Francis Cluley of Sheffield. By that time, designs for the vectis were more widely known and this example follows the design of Lowndes, an instrument maker based in London. Strikingly, the vectis was design to fold, with the hinge placed just above the ebony handle. This increased the portability of the instrument – most births occurred at home and practitioners could fold the vectis to place in their coat pocket or bag. The sliding catch with two prongs prevented folding whilst in use.
What do think of the initial attempts to keep such instruments secret by practitioners? Do you think there are any ethical issues here? Compare this vectis to forceps: why do you think the vectis might have fallen out of usage compared to the forceps?
There is no record of how the Thackray Museum of Medicine came to acquire this item: the record only states that it was ‘GIFT OF A DOCTOR, PRE-1984’, which was prior to the creation of the museum. It is possible that this item was gifted directly to Paul Thackray, the founder of the museum, by a doctor local to Yorkshire, but this is unproven.
The Thackray Museum of Medicine is based in Leeds, UK, and houses the collection of the Thackray family, who developed a major medical supply firm over the course of the twentieth century. The museum was opened in 1997 to enable the wider public to learn more about the story of medicine and has recently undergone a multimillion-pound refurbishment.
For more information visit www.thackraymuseum.co.uk