September 07, 2018

Beth Allen holds up a photo taken by her father after she was born premature in 1941. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

In the early 20th century, a premature baby was considered as good as dead. But Dr. Martin Couney —  who wasn’t actually a doctor —  made it his mission to save these babies by putting them neonatal incubators. And Couney had a flair for the dramatic. He would put incubated babies on display at Coney Island, and at World’s Fairs, where people could see them —  IF they paid a quarter. We talk to Dawn Raffel about her new biography, The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. 

Three Takeaways:

  • Why did Couney save these babies? Mostly because nobody else was doing it. Hospitals in the New York metro area didn’t have the equipment to save premature babies, so they often told parents to take their babies to Couney on Coney Island.
  • It wasn’t just a lack of resources that caused preemies to go untreated. The day’s medical literature described premature babies as “weaklings,” at a time when the eugenics movement might seem to support the separating of the strong from the weak. Many wondered if preemies would ever grow up to be productive citizens. 
  • Couney’s preemie sideshows might have been unique in America, but they had already gotten attention in Europe. The earliest incubator show came at the Berlin Industrial Exposition in 1896. 

More Reading:

Martin Couney, Sci and Tech, Coney Island, sideshow, Dawn Raffel

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