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Step right up and see the preemies!

Before they made it to the nursery, infant incubators could be found on the midway

Created date

January 22nd, 2019
People paid 25 cents to see Dr. Martin Couney’s incubator babies.

People paid 25 cents to see Dr. Martin Couney’s incubator babies.

In the early 1900s, amusement seekers flocked to Coney Island, N.Y., to ride the carousel and stuff themselves with hot dogs and cotton candy. They might meander through the sideshow area to see oddities like the lion-faced man, Zip the Pinhead, and the tattooed woman. 

These fantastic attractions came and went, but the most peculiar spectacle at Coney Island spanned 40 years. In 1903, a special pavilion was constructed. Its marquee read “Baby Incubators With Living Babies.”

For 25 cents, visitors could step inside to see a spacious room lined with incubators—each holding a tiny infant. A staff of nurses moved around the room caring for the babies and making sure the public stayed a safe distance away from their patients.   

Stunning as it now seems, the idea of placing dangerously small babies in incubators to help them thrive was considered a novelty or pseudoscience long into the twentieth century, and the medical professionals who championed the use of incubators were deemed quacks and charlatans.

As Dawn Raffel points out in her fascinating book The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies (Blue Rider Press, 2018), one reason saving underdeveloped infants wasn’t immediately embraced by the medical community was the undeniable influence of eugenics in the early twentieth century. Eugenics promoted the concept of creating a stronger human race and was a precursor to Nazism. Those who believed in eugenics reasoned that saving babies who would otherwise perish weakened the human race.

Hero or charlatan?

One of the earliest proponents of using incubators to nurture small, premature, or underdeveloped babies was a man named Martin Couney, who may well have been a charlatan, but not because of his fierce belief in the value of incubators.

Born Michael Cohn in Germany, he changed his name to Martin Couney. Back then, changing one’s past identity was commonplace for new immigrants in America, but Couney took it a bit further.

He called himself a physician, saying he had studied medicine in Paris. Given Couney’s age and known timeline, however, experts believe that Couney never earned his medical degree. It was a falsehood he perpetuated to give himself credibility, but had the authorities found out, Couney could have faced jail time.

No matter how vague his background may have been, one thing was crystal clear. Martin Couney saved the lives of many infants who almost certainly would have died without his care.

The first incubators

Inspired by the devices used to help poultry thrive, Dr. Stephane Tarnier created the first incubator used in a maternity hospital. In the 1880s, Tarnier installed wooden boxes with glass lids containing hot water bottles in a maternity ward in Paris. Over a three-year period, infant mortality at that hospital went down by 28%.

Another Parisian physician, Dr. Pierre Budin, considered one of the founders of perinatal medicine, published articles about the promise of Tarnier’s incubators. Despite their potential, the medical establishment dismissed the use of incubators.

When Budin met Couney (who by all accounts was a natural born showman), the two decided that the best way to promote the use of incubators was to take them to the public.

Budin and Couney arranged to exhibit incubators at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896. The men asked a local hospital to “lend” them their tiniest infants. Since babies that small rarely survived their first month, the hospital agreed, giving the men six infants.

Remarkably, all six babies survived.

Roadshow

Next Couney took the incubator show on the road, making stops in Paris and London before crossing the Atlantic for America.

After traveling around to various fairs and expositions, Couney established a permanent exhibition on Coney Island. He would later open a similar exhibit in Atlantic City, N.J.

At each stop, people would file through a baby nursery filled with premature infants in incubators.

To care for the babies, Couney hired exceptionally well-trained doctors and nurses who used eyedroppers to feed their smallest patients.

A strong believer in the value of breast milk for infants, Couney employed wet nurses to feed the babies. He was also a strong believer in good nutrition for nursing mothers, so any wet nurse caught eating a hot dog was immediately dismissed.

As he had done in Berlin, Couney alerted hospitals that he would gladly accept any premature infant sent his way, and he never charged parents a cent for the care he gave their children.

Over the course of his career, Couney took in an estimated 8,000 infants—about 6,500 of them survived. (One of the preemies he saved was his own daughter Hildegarde, who was just three pounds at birth.)

Medical experts credit Couney with saving thousands of lives and giving preemies an unmatched standard of care at the time.

Couney died in 1950 just a few years before incubators became the standard of care for premature infants in hospital nurseries all around the world.

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