Interesting Facts

Martin Couney, Saved Thousands of Premature Babies Wasn’t a Doctor at All

Martin Couney never qualified as a medical doctor. However, in the 1900s, he saved thousands of premature babies by exhibiting them in incubators at his Coney Island sideshow. Over the course of his career, he is said to have saved about 6,500 babies that had previously been written off by mainstream medicine.

At the turn of the century, visitors to Coney Island might wade in the water, eat ice cream, or ride a rollercoaster at Luna Park, an amusement park that had just opened. However, your promenade along the boardwalk may also include a visit to what amounts to the functional equivalent of a neonatal intensive care unit, complete with incubators full of premature babies sleeping inside of them.

It wouldn’t be an accident: in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, babies in incubators were a common sideshow. Premature babies could be seen in permanent exhibits like the one at Luna Park as well as at international fairs. The infants, however, weren’t there to be exhibited; rather, they were there to fight for their lives with the assistance of a courageous German man, Martin Couney.

Incubators, the most advanced technology available at the time, were used by Couney to keep premature babies alive. But prior to his ground-breaking work, doctors ridiculed or disregarded the technology.

French obstetrician Stéphane Tarnier created baby incubators after observing them in use at a zoo. Tarnier changed the concept he’d seen applied to newborn chickens to newborn people. However, in the early years of their existence, they did not have widespread adaptation.

The medical community’s attitude toward premature babies was one of the issues. Many people believed that it was pointless and expensive to care for premature babies. Low birth weight infants were cared for, but mortality was high and doctors believed Tarnier’s invention was not scientific. Few physicians think it has the ability to save lives because it was so novel and uncommon.

Here comes Pierre Budin, a French doctor who questioned why more medical facilities weren’t purchasing incubators. Despite the fact that he started conducting fruitful research with the technology in 1888, he encountered persistent difficulties when trying to secure funding for incubators. He made the decision to exhibit incubators at the Berlin World’s Fair in 1896.

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Baby incubators in use at the port-royal maternity hospital in paris, france, which was under the direction of dr. Tarnier. Photo credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Fairs at the time were more than just places to enjoy rides and eat food. The Great Exhibition, organized by Victorian-era England in 1851, served as hubs for international knowledge-sharing and technological advancement. It was crucial for both professionals and the general public to learn more about the most significant discoveries of the time from the new machines, devices, and scientific advancements that the Industrial Revolution had produced.

This was also true of the World’s Fair in 1896. There, German Martin Couney saw a collection of several premature babies that Budin had borrowed from a hospital in Berlin. Couney knew right away that people would pay to see babies in incubators and that the unique exhibit would save babies’ lives. The sight was so unusual that people crowded into the display, paying money while the doctors gave new life to the six infants.

Both Couney understood they had a potential lifesaver on their hands after the exhibit’s success. Since his daughter had been born early, Couney became interested in the care of premature babies even though historians now believe he was not a medical doctor. If hospitals refused to treat premature babies, Couney could, using fairs and exhibitions to draw crowds and funds for their neonatal care.

Coney Island was a marvel in and of itself at the time. Every weekend throughout the summer, tens of thousands of pleasure seekers flocked to the beach and boardwalk. As a result, there was a flourishing culture of sideshows, amusement parks, and vendors that appeared all along the beach. Coney Island’s appeal was made even more piquant by its relatively relaxed, casual atmosphere, where New York’s massive population could let their hair down and indulge themselves.

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dr. Martin couney, with his daughter and assistant hildegarde, holding a young boy as they look at a baby in an incubator at the new york world’s fair. Photo Credit: The New York Public Library

Incubators were a new attraction at Luna Park in Coney Island that opened for business in 1903. After relocating permanently to the US, Couney launched two incubator exhibits: Dreamland, located in Coney Island, and Luna Park. A fascinated audience watched as nurses attended to the babies. The premature baby exhibits featured carnival barkers, just like any other amusement, luring people in to see the babies. The premature babies benefited from ticket sales.

For many years, Couney ran the exhibits; at one Atlantic City incubator exhibit, he even asked his daughter Hildegard, the preemie who survived, for assistance. He received the babies from hospitals across the nation and accepted them at no cost. Slowly, thousands of babies were nursed back to health, and all because the public loved seeing them warm and cozy in their incubators.

Lucille Horn, who was born prematurely in 1920, said in an interview with NPR: “I think it was definitely more of a freak show, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right. Horn lived to be 96, and witnessed something that they usually did not see. She was only one of the babies who made it out alive; during his career, Couney claimed an 85 percent success rate and to have saved 6,500 babies.

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The smallest resident of the baby incubator at coney island in 1937 is this baby girl, weighing just 23 ounces, shown with nurse hildegarde couney. Photo credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The incubators were a serious matter of medicine even though they had developed into a beloved sideshow. As more hospitals started using incubators and his methods in 1943, Couney ended the performance at Coney Island. Even though one in ten babies born in the US are premature today, Couney and the carnival babies have significantly increased their chances of survival.

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